Tancred/Chapter XX


A Modern Troubadour

THEY seated themselves at a round table, on which everything seemed brilliant and sparkling; nothing heavy, nothing oppressive. There was scarcely anything that Sidonia disliked so much as a small table, groaning, as it is aptly termed, with plate. He shrunk from great masses of gold and silver; gigantic groups, colossal shields, and mobs of tankards and flagons; and never used them except on great occasions, when the banquet assumes an Egyptian character, and becomes too vast for refinement. At present, the dinner was served on Sèvres porcelain of Rose du Barri, raised on airy golden stands of arabesque workmanship; a mule bore your panniers of salt, or a sea-nymph proffered it you on a shell just fresh from the ocean, or you found it in a bird's nest; by every guest a different pattern. In the centre of the table, mounted on a pedestal, was a group of pages in Dresden china. Nothing could be more gay than their bright cloaks and flowing plumes, more elaborately exquisite than their laced shirts and rosettes, or more fantastically saucy than their pretty affected faces, as each, with extended arm, held a light to a guest. The room was otherwise illumined from the sides.

The guests had scarcely seated themselves when the two absent ones arrived.

'Well, you did not divide, Vavasour,' said Lord Henry.

'Did I not?' said Vavasour; 'and nearly beat the Government. You are a pretty fellow!'

'I was paired.'

'With some one who could not stay. Your brother, Mrs. Coningsby, behaved like a man, sacrificed his dinner, and made a capital speech.'

'Oh! Oswald, did he speak? Did you speak, Harry?'

'No; I voted. There was too much speaking as it was; if Vavasour had not replied, I believe we should have won.'

'But then, my dear fellow, think of my points; think how they laid themselves open!'

'A majority is always the best repartee,' said Coningsby.

'I have been talking with Montacute,' whispered Lord Henry to Coningsby, who was seated next to him. 'Wonderful fellow! You can conceive nothing richer! Very wild, but all the right ideas; exaggerated of course. You must get hold of him after dinner.'

'But they say he is going to Jerusalem.'

'But he will return.'

'I do not know that; even Napoleon regretted that he had ever re-crossed the Mediterranean. The East is a career.'

Mr. Vavasour was a social favourite; a poet and a real poet, and a troubadour, as well as a member of Parliament; travelled, sweet-tempered, and good-hearted; amusing and clever. With catholic sympathies and an eclectic turn of mind, Mr. Vavasour saw something good in everybody and everything, which is certainly amiable, and perhaps just, but disqualifies a man in some degree for the business of life, which requires for its conduct a certain degree of prejudice. Mr. Vavasour's breakfasts were renowned. Whatever your creed, class, or country, one might almost add your character, you were a welcome guest at his matutinal meal, provided you were celebrated. That qualification, however, was rigidly enforced.

It not rarely happened that never were men more incongruously grouped. Individuals met at his hospitable house who had never met before, but who for years had been cherishing in solitude mutual detestation, with all the irritable exaggeration of the literary character. Vavasour liked to be the Amphitryon of a cluster of personal enemies. He prided himself on figuring as the social medium by which rival reputations became acquainted, and paid each other in his presence the compliments which veiled their ineffable disgust. All this was very well at his rooms in the Albany, and only funny; but when he collected his menageries at his ancestral hall in a distant county, the sport sometimes became tragic.

A real philosopher, alike from his genial disposition and from the influence of his rich and various information, Vavasour moved amid the strife, sympathising with every one; and perhaps, after all, the philanthropy which was his boast was not untinged by a dash of humour, of which rare and charming quality he possessed no inconsiderable portion. Vavasour liked to know everybody who was known, and to see everything which ought to be seen. He also was of opinion that everybody who was known ought to know him; and that the spectacle, however splendid or exciting, was not quite perfect without his presence.

His life was a gyration of energetic curiosity; an insatiable whirl of social celebrity. There was not a congregation of sages and philosophers in any part of Europe which he did not attend as a brother. He was present at the camp of Kalisch in his yeomanry uniform, and assisted at the festivals of Barcelona in an Andalusian jacket. He was everywhere, and at everything; he had gone down in a diving-bell and gone up in a balloon. As for his acquaintances, he was welcomed in every land; his universal sympathies seemed omnipotent. Emperor and king, jacobin and carbonaro, alike cherished him. He was the steward of Polish balls and the vindicator of Russian humanity; he dined with Louis Philippe, and gave dinners to Louis Blanc.

This was a dinner of which the guests came to partake. Though they delighted in each other's society, their meetings were not so rare that they need sacrifice the elegant pleasures of a refined meal for the opportunity of conversation. They let that take its chance, and ate and drank without affectation. Nothing so rare as a female dinner where people eat, and few things more delightful. On the present occasion some time elapsed, while the admirable performances of Sidonia's cook were discussed, with little interruption; a burst now and then from the ringing voice of Mrs. Coningsby crossing a lance with her habitual opponent, Mr. Vavasour, who, however, generally withdrew from the skirmish when a fresh dish was handed to him.

At length, the second course being served, Mrs. Coningsby said, 'I think you have all eaten enough: I have a piece of information for you. There is going to be a costume ball at the Palace.'

This announcement produced a number of simultaneous remarks and exclamations. 'When was it to be? What was it to be? An age, or a country; or an olio of all ages and all countries?'

'An age is a masquerade,' said Sidonia. 'The more contracted the circle, the more perfect the illusion.'

'Oh, no!' said Vavasour, shaking his head. 'An age is the thing; it is a much higher thing. What can be finer than to represent the spirit of an age?'

'And Mr. Vavasour to perform the principal part,' said Mrs. Coningsby. 'I know exactly what he means. He wants to dance the polka as Petrarch, and find a Laura in every partner.'

'You have no poetical feeling,' said Mr. Vavasour, waving his hand. 'I have often told you so.'

'You will easily find Lauras, Mr. Vavasour, if you often write such beautiful verses as I have been reading to-day,' said Lady Marney.

'You, on the contrary,' said Mr. Vavasour, bowing, 'have a great deal of poetic feeling, Lady Marney; I have always said so.'

'But give us your news, Edith,' said Coningsby. 'Imagine our suspense, when it is a question, whether we are all to look picturesque or quizzical.'

'Ah, you want to know whether you can go as Cardinal Mazarin, or the Duke of Ripperda, Harry. I know exactly what you all are now thinking of; whether you will draw the prize in the forthcoming lottery, and get exactly the epoch and the character which suit you. Is it not so, Lord Montacute? Would not you like to practise a little with your crusados at the Queen's ball before you go to the Holy Sepulchre?'

'I would rather hear your description of it,' said Tancred.

'Lord Henry, I see, is half inclined to be your companion as a Red-cross Knight,' continued Edith. 'As for Lady Marney, she is the successor of Mrs. Fry, and would wish, I am sure, to go to the ball as her representative.'

'And pray what are you thinking of being?' said Mr. Vavasour. 'We should like very much to be favoured with Mrs. Coningsby's ideal of herself.'

'Mrs. Coningsby leaves the ideal to poets. She is quite satisfied to remain what she is, and it is her intention to do so, though she means to go to Her Majesty's ball.'

'I see that you are in the secret,' said Lord Marney.

'If I could only keep secrets, I might turn out something.' said Mrs. Coningsby. 'I am the depositary of so much that is occult-joys, sorrows, plots, and scrapes; but I always tell Harry, and he always betrays me. Well, you must guess a little. Lady Marney begins.'

'Well, we were at one at Turin,' said Lady Marney, 'and it was oriental, Lalla Rookh. Are you to be a sultana?'

Mrs. Coningsby shook her head.

'Come, Edith,' said her husband; 'if you know, which I doubt——'

'Oh! you doubt——'

'Valentine told me yesterday,' said Mr. Vavasour, in a mock peremptory tone, 'that there would not be a ball.'

'And Lord Valentine told me yesterday that there would be a ball, and what the ball would be; and what is more, I have fixed on my dress,' said Mrs. Coningsby.

'Such a rapid decision proves that much antiquarian research is not necessary,' said Sidonia. 'Your period is modern.'

'Ah!' said Edith, looking at Sidonia, 'he always finds me out. Well, Mr. Vavasour, you will not be able to crown yourself with a laurel wreath, for the gentlemen will wear wigs.'

'Louis Quatorze?' said her husband. 'Peel as Louvois.'

'No, Sir Robert would be content with nothing less than Le Grand Colbert, rue Richelieu, No. 75, grand magasin de nouveautés très-anciennes: prix fixé, avec quelques rabais.'

'A description of Conservatism,' said Coningsby.

The secret was soon revealed: every one had a conjecture and a commentary: gentlemen in wigs, and ladies powdered, patched, and sacked. Vavasour pondered somewhat dolefully on the anti-poetic spirit of the age; Coningsby hailed him as the author of Leonidas.

'And you, I suppose, will figure as one of the "boys" arrayed against the great Sir Robert?' said Mr. Vavasour, with a countenance of mock veneration for that eminent personage.

'The "boys" beat him at last,' said Coningsby; and then, with a rapid precision and a richness of colouring which were peculiar to him, he threw out a sketch which placed the period before them; and they began to tear it to tatters, select the incidents, and apportion the characters.

Two things which are necessary to a perfect dinner are noiseless attendants, and a precision in serving the various dishes of each course, so that they may all be placed upon the table at the same moment. A deficiency in these respects produces that bustle and delay which distract many an agreeable conversation and spoil many a pleasant dish. These two excellent characteristics were never wanting at the dinners of Sidonia. At no house was there less parade. The appearance of the table changed as if by the waving of a wand, and silently as a dream. And at this moment, the dessert being arranged, fruits and their beautiful companions, flowers, reposed in alabaster baskets raised on silver stands of filigree work.

There was half an hour of merry talk, graceful and gay: a good story, a bon-mot fresh from the mint, some raillery like summer lightning, vivid but not scorching.

'And now,' said Edith, as the ladies rose to return to the library, 'and now we leave you to Maynooth.'

'By-the-bye, what do they say to it in your House, Lord Marney?' inquired Henry Sydney, filling his glass.

'It will go down,' said Lord Marney. 'A strong dose for some, but they are used to potent potions.'

'The bishops, they say, have not made up their minds.'

'Fancy bishops not having made up their minds,' exclaimed Tancred: 'the only persons who ought never to doubt.'

'Except when they are offered a bishopric,' said Lord Marney.

'Why I like this Maynooth project,' said Tancred, 'though otherwise it little interests me, is, that all the shopkeepers are against it.'

'Don't tell that to the minister,' said Coningsby, 'or he will give up the measure.'

'Well, that is the very reason,' said Vavasour, 'why, though otherwise inclined to the grant, I hesitate as to my vote. I have the highest opinion of the shopkeepers; I sympathise even with their prejudices. They are the class of the age; they represent its order, its decency, its industry.'

'And you represent them,' said Coningsby. 'Vavasour is the quintessence of order, decency, and industry.'

'You may jest,' said Vavasour, shaking his head with a spice of solemn drollery; 'but public opinion must and ought to be respected, right or wrong.'

'What do you mean by public opinion?' said Tancred.

'The opinion of the reflecting majority,' said Vavasour.

'Those who don't read your poems,' said Coningsby.

'Boy, boy!' said Vavasour, who could endure raillery from one he had been at college with, but who was not over-pleased at Coningsby selecting the present occasion to claim his franchise, when a new man was present like Lord Montacute, on whom Vavasour naturally wished to produce an impression. It must be owned that it was not, as they say, very good taste in the husband of Edith, but prosperity had developed in Coningsby a native vein of sauciness which it required all the solemnity of the senate to repress. Indeed, even there, upon the benches, with a grave face, he often indulged in quips and cranks that convulsed his neighbouring audience, who often, amid the long dreary nights of statistical imposture, sought refuge in his gay sarcasms, his airy personalities, and happy quotations.

'I do not see how there can be opinion without thought,' said Tancred; 'and I do not believe the public ever think. How can they? They have no time. Certainly we live at present under the empire of general ideas, which are extremely powerful. But the public have not invented those ideas. They have adopted them from convenience. No one has confidence in himself; on the contrary, every one has a mean idea of his own strength and has no reliance on his own judgment. Men obey a general impulse, they bow before an external necessity, whether for resistance or action. Individuality is dead; there is a want of inward and personal energy in man; and that is what people feel and mean when they go about complaining there is no faith.'

'You would hold, then,' said Henry Sydney, 'that the progress of public liberty marches with the decay of personal greatness?'

'It would seem so.'

'But the majority will always prefer public liberty to personal greatness,' said Lord Marney.

'But, without personal greatness, you never would have had public liberty,' said Coningsby.

'After all, it is civilisation that you are kicking against,' said Vavasour.

'I do not understand what you mean by civilisation,' said Tancred.

'The progressive development of the faculties of man,' said Vavasour.

'Yes, but what is progressive development?' said Sidonia; 'and what are the faculties of man? If development be progressive, how do you account for the state of Italy? One will tell you it is superstition, indulgences, and the Lady of Loretto; yet three centuries ago, when all these influences were much more powerful, Italy was the soul of Europe. The less prejudiced, a Puseyite for example, like our friend Vavasour, will assure us that the state of Italy has nothing to do with the spirit of its religion, but that it is entirely an affair of commerce; a revolution of commerce has convulsed its destinies. I cannot forget that the world was once conquered by Italians who had no commerce. Has the development of Western Asia been progressive? It is a land of tombs and ruins. Is China progressive, the most ancient and numerous of existing societies? Is Europe itself progressive? Is Spain a tithe as great as she was? Is Germany as great as when she invented printing; as she was under the rule of Charles the Fifth? France herself laments her relative inferiority to the past. But England flourishes. Is it what you call civilisation that makes England flourish? Is it the universal development of the faculties of man that has rendered an island, almost unknown to the ancients, the arbiter of the world? Clearly not. It is her inhabitants that have done this; it is an affair of race. A Saxon race, protected by an insular position, has stamped its diligent and methodic character on the century. And when a superior race, with a superior idea to work and order, advances, its state will be progressive, and we shall, perhaps, follow the example of the desolate countries. All is race; there is no other truth.'

'Because it includes all others?' said Lord Henry.

'You have said it.'

'As for Vavasour's definition of civilisation,' said Coningsby, 'civilisation was more advanced in ancient than modern times; then what becomes of the progressive principle? Look at the great centuries of the Roman Empire! You had two hundred millions of human beings governed by a jurisprudence so philosophical that we have been obliged to adopt its laws, and living in perpetual peace. The means of communication, of which we now make such a boast, were far more vast and extensive in those days. What were the Great Western and the London and Birmingham to the Appian and Flaminian roads? After two thousand five hundred years, parts of these are still used. A man under the Antonines might travel from Paris to Antioch with as much ease and security as we go from London to York. As for free trade, there never was a really unshackled commerce except in the days when the whole of the Mediterranean coasts belonged to one power. What a chatter there is now about the towns, and how their development is cited as the peculiarity of the age, and the great security for public improvement. Why, the Roman Empire was the empire of great cities. Man was then essentially municipal.'

'What an empire!' said Sidonia. 'All the superior races in all the superior climes.'

'But how does all this accord with your and Coningsby's favourite theory of the influence of individual character?' said Vavasour to Sidonia; 'which I hold, by-the-bye,' he added rather pompously, 'to be entirely futile.'

'What is individual character but the personification of race,' said Sidonia, 'its perfection and choice exemplar? Instead of being an inconsistency, the belief in the influence of the individual is a corollary of the original proposition.'

'I look upon a belief in the influence of individual character as a barbarous superstition,' said Vavasour.

'Vavasour believes that there would be no heroes if there were a police,' said Coningsby; 'but I believe that civilisation is only fatal to minstrels, and that is the reason now we have no poets.'

'How do you account for the Polish failure in 1831?' said Lord Marney. 'They had a capital army, they were backed by the population, but they failed. They had everything but a man.'

'Why were the Whigs smashed in 1834,' said Coningsby, 'but because they had not a man?'

'What is the real explanation of the state of Mexico?' said Sidonia. 'It has not a man.'

'So much for progress since the days of Charles the Fifth,' said Henry Sydney. 'The Spaniards then conquered Mexico, and now they cannot govern it.'

'So much for race,' said Vavasour. 'The race is the same; why are not the results the same?'

'Because it is worn out,' said Sidonia. 'Why do not the Ethiopians build another Thebes, or excavate the colossal temples of the cataracts? The decay of a race is an inevitable necessity, unless it lives in deserts and never mixes its blood.'