Tancred/Chapter XXI


Sweet Sympathy

I AM sorry, my dear mother, that I cannot accompany you; but I must go down to my yacht this morning, and on my return from Greenwich I have an engagement.'

This was said about a week after the dinner at Sidonia's, by Lord Montacute to the duchess. 'That terrible yacht!' thought the duchess. Her Grace, a year ago, had she been aware of it, would have deemed Tancred's engagement as fearful an affair. The idea that her son should have called every day for a week on a married lady, beautiful and attractive, would have filled her with alarm amounting almost to horror. Yet such was the innocent case. It might at the first glance seem difficult to reconcile the rival charms of the Basilisk and Lady Bertie and Bellair, and to understand how Tancred could be so interested in the preparations for a voyage which was to bear him from the individual in whose society he found a daily gratification. But the truth is, that Lady Bertie and Bellair was the only person who sympathised with his adventure.

She listened with the liveliest concern to his account of all his progress; she even made many admirable suggestions, for Lady Bertie and Bellair had been a frequent visitor at Cowes, and was quite initiated in the mysteries of the dilettante service of the Yacht Club. She was a capital sailor; at least she always told Tancred so. But this was not the chief source of sympathy, or the principal bond of union, between them. It was not the voyage, so much as the object of the voyage, that touched all the passion of Lady Bertie and Bellair. Her heart was at Jerusalem. The sacred city was the dream of her life; and, amid the dissipations of May Fair and the distractions of Belgravia, she had in fact all this time only been thinking of Jehoshaphat and Sion. Strange coincidence of sentiment—strange and sweet!

The enamoured Montacute hung over her with pious rapture, as they examined together Mr. Roberts's Syrian drawings, and she alike charmed and astonished him by her familiarity with every locality and each detail. She looked like a beautiful prophetess as she dilated with solemn enthusiasm on the sacred scene. Tancred called on her every day, because when he called the first time he had announced his immediate departure, and so had been authorised to promise that he would pay his respects to her every day till he went. It was calculated that by these means, that is to say three or four visits, they might perhaps travel through Mr. Roberts's views together before he left England, which would facilitate their correspondence, for Tancred had engaged to write to the only person in the world worthy of receiving his letters. But, though separated, Lady Bertie and Bellair would be with him in spirit; and once she sighed and seemed to murmur that if his voyage could only be postponed awhile, she might in a manner become his fellow-pilgrim, for Lord Bertie, a great sportsman, had a desire to kill antelopes, and, wearied with the monotonous slaughter of English preserves, tired even of the eternal moors, had vague thoughts of seeking new sources of excitement amid the snipes of the Grecian marshes, and the deer and wild boars of the desert and the Syrian hills.

While his captain was repeating his inquiries for instructions on the deck of the Basilisk at Greenwich, moored off the Trafalgar Hotel, Tancred fell into reveries of female pilgrims kneeling at the Holy Sepulchre by his side; then started, gave a hurried reply, and drove back quickly to town, to pass the remainder of the morning in Brook Street.

The two or three days had expanded into two or three weeks, and Tancred continued to call daily on Lady Bertie and Bellair, to say farewell. It was not wonderful: she was the only person in London who understood him; so she delicately intimated, so he profoundly felt. They had the same ideas; they must have the same idiosyncrasy. The lady asked with a sigh why they had not met before; Tancred found some solace in the thought that they had at least become acquainted. There was something about this lady very interesting besides her beauty, her bright intelligence, and her seraphic thoughts. She was evidently the creature of impulse; to a certain degree perhaps the victim of her imagination. She seemed misplaced in life. The tone of the century hardly suited her refined and romantic spirit. Her ethereal nature seemed to shrink from the coarse reality which invades in our days even the boudoirs of May Fair.

There was something in her appearance and the temper of her being which rebuked the material, sordid, calculating genius of our reign of Mammon.

Her presence in this world was a triumphant vindication of the claims of beauty and of sentiment. It was evident that she was not happy; for, though her fair brow always lighted up when she met the glance of Tancred, it was impossible not to observe that she was sometimes strangely depressed, often anxious and excited, frequently absorbed in reverie. Yet her vivid intelligence, the clearness and precision of her thought and fancy, never faltered. In the unknown yet painful contest, the intellectual always triumphed. It was impossible to deny that she was a woman of great ability.

Nor could it for a moment be imagined that these fitful moods were merely the routine intimations that her domestic hearth was not as happy as it deserved to be. On the contrary, Lord and Lady Bertie and Bellair were the very best friends; she always spoke of her husband with interest and kindness; they were much together, and there evidently existed between them mutual confidence. His lordship's heart, indeed, was not at Jerusalem; and perhaps this want of sympathy on a subject of such rare and absorbing interest might account for the occasional musings of his wife, taking refuge in her own solitary and devoutly passionate soul. But this deficiency on the part of his lordship could scarcely be alleged against him as a very heinous fault; it is far from usual to find a British noble who on such a topic entertains the notions and sentiments of Lord Montacute; almost as rare to find a British peeress who could respond to them with the same fervour and facility as the beautiful Lady Bertie and Bellair. The life of a British peer is mainly regulated by Arabian laws and Syrian customs at this moment; but, while he sabbatically abstains from the debate or the rubber, or regulates the quarterly performance of his judicial duties in his province by the advent of the sacred festivals, he thinks little of the land and the race who, under the immediate superintendence of the Deity, have by their sublime legislation established the principle of periodic rest to man, or by their deeds and their dogmas, commemorated by their holy anniversaries, have elevated the condition and softened the lot of every nation except their own.

'And how does Tancred get on?' asked Lord Eskdale one morning of the Duchess of Bellamont, with a dry smile. 'I understand that, instead of going to Jerusalem, he is going to give us a fish dinner.'

The Duchess of Bellamont had made the acquaintance of Lady Bertie and Bellair, and was delighted with her, although her Grace had been told that Lord Montacute called upon her every day. The proud, intensely proper, and highly prejudiced Duchess of Bellamont took the most charitable view of this sudden and fervent friendship. A female friend, who talked about Jerusalem, but kept her son in London, was in the present estimation of the duchess a real treasure, the most interesting and admirable of her sex. Their intimacy was satisfactorily accounted for by the invaluable information which she imparted to Tancred; what he was to see, do, eat, drink; how he was to avoid being poisoned and assassinated, escape fatal fevers, regularly attend the service of the Church of England in countries where there were no churches, and converse in languages of which he had no knowledge. He could not have a better counsellor than Lady Bertie, who had herself travelled, at least to the Faubourg St. Honoré, and, as Horace Walpole says, after Calais nothing astonishes. Certainly Lady Bertie had not been herself to Jerusalem, but she had read about it, and every other place. The duchess was delighted that Tancred had a companion who interested him. With all the impulse of her sanguine temperament, she had already accustomed herself to look upon the long-dreaded yacht as a toy, and rather an amusing one, and was daily more convinced of the prescient shrewdness of her cousin, Lord Eskdale.

Tancred was going to give them a fish dinner! A what? A sort of banquet which might have served for the marriage feast of Neptune and Amphitrite, and be commemorated by a constellation; and which ought to have been administered by the Nereids and the Naiads; terrines of turtle, pools of water souchée, flounders of every hue, and eels in every shape, cutlets of salmon, salmis of carp, ortolans represented by whitebait, and huge roasts carved out of the sturgeon. The appetite is distracted by the variety of objects, and tantalised by the restlessness of perpetual solicitation; not a moment of repose, no pause for enjoyment; eventually, a feeling of satiety, without satisfaction, and of repletion without sustenance; till, at night, gradually recovering from the whirl of the anomalous repast, famished yet incapable of flavour, the tortured memory can only recall with an effort, that it has dined off pink champagne and brown bread and butter!

What a ceremony to be presided over by Tancred of Montacute; who, if he deigned to dine at all, ought to have dined at no less a round table than that of King Arthur. What a consummation of a sublime project! What a catastrophe of a spiritual career! A Greenwich party and a tavern bill!

All the world now is philosophical, and therefore they can account for this disaster. Without doubt we are the creatures of circumstances; and, if circumstances take the shape of a charming woman, who insists upon sailing in your yacht, which happens to to be at Blackwall or Greenwich, it is not easy to discover how the inevitable consequences can be avoided. It would hardly do, off the Nore, to present your mistress with a sea-pie, or abruptly remind your farewell friends and sorrowing parents of their impending loss by suddenly serving up soup hermetically sealed, and roasting the embalmed joint, which ought only to have smoked amid the ruins of Thebes or by the cataracts of Nubia.

There are, however, two sides of every picture; a party may be pleasant, and even a fish dinner not merely a whirl of dishes and a clash of plates. The guests may be not too numerous, and well assorted; the attendance not too devoted, yet regardful; the weather may be charming, which is a great thing, and the giver of the dinner may be charmed, and that is everything.

The party to see the Basilisk was not only the most agreeable of the season, but the most agreeable ever known. They all said so when they came back. Mr. Vavasour, who was there, went to all his evening parties; to the assembly by the wife of a minister in Carlton Terrace; to a rout by the wife of the leader of opposition in Whitehall; to a literary soirée in Westminster, and a brace of balls in Portman and Belgrave Squares; and told them all that they were none of them to be compared to the party of the morning, to which, it must be owned, he had greatly contributed by his good humour and merry wit. Mrs. Coningsby declared to every one that, if Lord Monta-cute would take her, she was quite ready to go to Jerusalem; such a perfect vessel was the Basilisk, and such an admirable sailor was Mrs. Coningsby, which, considering that the river was like a mill-pond, according to Tancred's captain, or like a mirror, according to Lady Bertie and Bellair, was not surprising. The duke protested that he was quite glad that Mon-tacute had taken to yachting, it seemed to agree with him so well; and spoke of his son's future movements as if there were no such place as Palestine in the world. The sanguine duchess dreamed of Cowes regattas, and resolved to agree to any arrangement to meet her son's fancy, provided he would stay at home, which she convinced herself he had now resolved to do.

'Our cousin is so wise,' she said to her husband, as they were returning. 'What could the bishop mean by saying that Tancred was a visionary? I agree with you, George, there is no counsellor like a man of the world.'

'I wish M. de Sidonia had come,' said Lady Bertie and Bellair, gazing from the window of the Trafalgar on the moonlit river with an expression of abstraction, and speaking in a tone almost of melancholy.

'I also wish it, since you do,' said Tancred. 'But they say he goes nowhere. It was almost presumptuous in me to ask him, yet I did so because you wished it.'

'I never shall know him,' said Lady Bertie and Bellair, with some vexation.

'He interests you,' said Tancred, a little piqued.

'I had so many things to say to him,' said her ladyship.

'Indeed!' said Tancred; and then he continued, 'I offered him every inducement to come, for I told him it was to meet you; but perhaps if he had known that you had so many things to say to him, he might have relented.'

'So many things! Oh! yes. You know he has been a great traveller; he has been everywhere; he has been at Jerusalem.'

'Fortunate man!' exclaimed Tancred, half to himself. 'Would I were there!'

'Would we were there, you mean,' said Lady Bertie, in a tone of exquisite melody, and looking at Tancred with her rich, charged eyes.

His heart trembled; he was about to give utterance to some wild words, but they died upon his lips. Two great convictions shared his being: the absolute necessity of at once commencing his pilgrimage, and the persuasion that life, without the constant presence of this sympathising companion, must be intolerable. What was to be done? In his long reveries, where he had brooded over so many thoughts, some only of which he had as yet expressed to mortal ear, Tancred had calculated, as he believed, every combination of obstacle which his projects might have to encounter; but one, it now seemed, he had entirely omitted, the influence of woman. Why was he here? Why was he not away? Why had he not departed? The reflection was intolerable; it seemed to him even disgraceful. The being who would be content with nothing less than communing with celestial powers in sacred climes, standing at a tavern window gazing on the moonlit mudbanks of the barbarous Thames, a river which neither angel nor prophet had ever visited! Before him, softened by the hour, was the Isle of Dogs! The Isle of Dogs! It should at least be Cyprus!

The carriages were announced; Lady Bertie and Bellair placed her arm in his.