Benjamin Disraeli.

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banks.

It was in the month of August, some six or seven years ago, that a
traveller on foot, touched, as he emerged from the dark wood, by the
beauty of this scene, threw himself under the shade of a spreading tree,
and stretched his limbs on the turf for enjoyment rather than repose.
The sky was deep-coloured and without a cloud, save here and there
a minute, sultry, burnished vapour, almost as glossy as the heavens.
Everything was still as it was bright; all seemed brooding and basking;
the bee upon its wing was the only stirring sight, and its song the only
sound.

The traveller fell into a reverie. He was young, and therefore his
musings were of the future. He had felt the pride of learning, so
ennobling to youth; he was not a stranger to the stirring impulses of a
high ambition, though the world to him was as yet only a world of books,
and all that he knew of the schemes of statesmen and the passions of
the people, were to be found in their annals. Often had his fitful fancy
dwelt with fascination on visions of personal distinction, of future
celebrity, perhaps even of enduring fame. But his dreams were of another
colour now. The surrounding scene, so fair, so still, and sweet; so
abstracted from all the tumult of the world, its strife, its passions,
and its cares: had fallen on his heart with its soft and subduing
spirit; had fallen on a heart still pure and innocent, the heart of
one who, notwithstanding all his high resolves and daring thoughts, was
blessed with that tenderness of soul which is sometimes linked with an
ardent imagination and a strong will. The traveller was an orphan, more
than that, a solitary orphan. The sweet sedulousness of a mother's
love, a sister's mystical affection, had not cultivated his early
susceptibility. No soft pathos of expression had appealed to his
childish ear. He was alone, among strangers calmly and coldly kind.
It must indeed have been a truly gentle disposition that could have
withstood such hard neglect. All that he knew of the power of the softer
passions might be found in the fanciful and romantic annals of schoolboy
friendship.

And those friends too, so fond, so sympathising, so devoted, where were
they now? Already they were dispersed; the first great separation of
life had been experienced; the former schoolboy had planted his foot on
the threshold of manhood. True, many of them might meet again; many of
them the University must again unite, but never with the same feelings.
The space of time, passed in the world before they again met, would be
an age of sensation, passion, experience to all of them. They would meet
again with altered mien, with different manners, different voices. Their
eyes would not shine with the same light; they would not speak the same
words. The favourite phrases of their intimacy, the mystic sounds that
spoke only to their initiated ear, they would be ashamed to use them.
Yes, they might meet again, but the gushing and secret tenderness was
gone for ever.

Nor could our pensive youth conceal it from himself that it was
affection, and mainly affection, that had bound him to these dear
companions. They could not be to him what he had been to them. His had
been the inspiring mind that had guided their opinions, formed their
tastes, directed the bent and tenor of their lives and thoughts.
Often, indeed, had he needed, sometimes he had even sighed for,
the companionship of an equal or superior mind; one who, by the
comprehension of his thought, and the richness of his knowledge, and the
advantage of his experience, might strengthen and illuminate and guide
his obscure or hesitating or unpractised intelligence. He had scarcely
been fortunate in this respect, and he deeply regretted it; for he was
one of those who was not content with excelling in his own circle, if
he thought there was one superior to it. Absolute, not relative
distinction, was his noble aim.

Alone, in a lonely scene, he doubly felt the solitude of his life and
mind. His heart and his intellect seemed both to need a companion.
Books, and action, and deep thought, might in time supply the want of
that intellectual guide; but for the heart, where was he to find solace?

Ah! if she would but come forth from that shining lake like a beautiful
Ondine! Ah, if she would but step out from the green shade of that
secret grove like a Dryad of sylvan Greece! O mystery of mysteries, when
youth dreams his first dream over some imaginary heroine!

Suddenly the brooding wildfowl rose from the bosom of the lake, soared
in the air, and, uttering mournful shrieks, whirled in agitated tumult.
The deer started from their knolls, no longer sunny, stared around, and
rushed into the woods. Coningsby raised his eyes from the turf on which
they had been long fixed in abstraction, and he observed that the azure
sky had vanished, a thin white film had suddenly spread itself over the
heavens, and the wind moaned with a sad and fitful gust.

He had some reason to believe that on the other side of the opposite
wood the forest was intersected by a public road, and that there were
some habitations. Immediately rising, he descended at a rapid pace into
the valley, passed the lake, and then struck into the ascending wood on
the bank opposite to that on which he had mused away some precious time.

The wind howled, the branches of the forest stirred, and sent forth
sounds like an incantation. Soon might be distinguished the various
voices of the mighty trees, as they expressed their terror or their
agony. The oak roared, the beech shrieked, the elm sent forth its deep
and long-drawn groan; while ever and anon, amid a momentary pause, the
passion of the ash was heard in moans of thrilling anguish.

Coningsby hurried on, the forest became less close. All that he aspired
to was to gain more open country. Now he was in a rough flat land,
covered only here and there with dwarf underwood; the horizon bounded at
no great distance by a barren hill of moderate elevation. He gained its
height with ease. He looked over a vast open country like a wild common;
in the extreme distance hills covered with woods; the plain intersected
by two good roads: the sky entirely clouded, but in the distance black
as ebony.

A place of refuge was at hand: screened from his first glance by some
elm-trees, the ascending smoke now betrayed a roof, which Coningsby
reached before the tempest broke. The forest-inn was also a farmhouse.
There was a comfortable-enough looking kitchen; but the ingle nook was
full of smokers, and Coningsby was glad to avail himself of the only
private room for the simple meal which they offered him, only eggs and
bacon; but very welcome to a pedestrian, and a hungry one.

As he stood at the window of his little apartment, watching the large
drops that were the heralds of a coming hurricane, and waiting for his
repast, a flash of lightning illumined the whole country, and a horseman
at full speed, followed by his groom, galloped up to the door.

The remarkable beauty of the animal so attracted Coningsby's attention
that it prevented him catching even a glimpse of the rider, who rapidly
dismounted and entered the inn. The host shortly after came in and asked
Coningsby whether he had any objection to a gentleman, who was driven
there by the storm, sharing his room until it subsided. The consequence
of the immediate assent of Coningsby was, that the landlord retired and
soon returned, ushering in an individual, who, though perhaps ten years
older than Coningsby, was still, according to Hippocrates, in the period
of lusty youth. He was above the middle height, and of a distinguished
air and figure; pale, with an impressive brow, and dark eyes of great
intelligence.

'I am glad that we have both escaped the storm,' said the stranger;
'and I am greatly indebted to you for your courtesy.' He slightly and
graciously bowed, as he spoke in a voice of remarkable clearness; and
his manner, though easy, was touched with a degree of dignity that was
engaging.

'The inn is a common home,' replied Coningsby, returning his salute.

'And free from cares,' added the stranger. Then, looking through
the window, he said, 'A strange storm this. I was sauntering in the
sunshine, when suddenly I found I had to gallop for my life. 'Tis more
like a white squall in the Mediterranean than anything else.'

'I never was in the Mediterranean,' said Coningsby. 'There is nothing I
should like so much as to travel.'

'You are travelling,' rejoined his companion. 'Every moment is travel,
if understood.'

'Ah! but the Mediterranean!' exclaimed Coningsby. 'What would I not give
to see Athens!'

'I have seen it,' said the stranger, slightly shrugging his shoulders;'
and more wonderful things. Phantoms and spectres! The Age of Ruins is
past. Have you seen Manchester?'

'I have seen nothing,' said Coningsby; 'this is my first wandering. I am
about to visit a friend who lives in this county, and I have sent on
my baggage as I could. For myself, I determined to trust to a less
common-place conveyance.'

'And seek adventures,' said the stranger, smiling, 'Well, according to
Cervantes, they should begin in an inn.'

'I fear that the age of adventures is past, as well as that of ruins,'
replied Coningsby.

'Adventures are to the adventurous,' said the stranger.

At this moment a pretty serving-maid entered the room. She laid the
dapper cloth and arranged the table with a self-possession quite
admirable. She seemed unconscious that any being was in the chamber
except herself, or that there were any other duties to perform in life
beyond filling a saltcellar or folding a napkin.

'She does not even look at us,' said Coningsby, when she had quitted the
room; 'and I dare say is only a prude.'

'She is calm,' said the stranger, 'because she is mistress of her
subject; 'tis the secret of self-possession. She is here as a duchess at
court.'

They brought in Coningsby's meal, and he invited the stranger to join
him. The invitation was accepted with cheerfulness.

''Tis but simple fare,' said Coningsby, as the maiden uncovered the
still hissing bacon and the eggs, that looked like tufts of primroses.

'Nay, a national dish,' said the stranger, glancing quickly at the
table, 'whose fame is a proverb. And what more should we expect under
a simple roof! How much better than an omelette or a greasy olla, that
they would give us in a posada! 'Tis a wonderful country this England!
What a napkin! How spotless! And so sweet; I declare 'tis a perfume.
There is not a princess throughout the South of Europe served with the
cleanliness that meets us in this cottage.'

'An inheritance from our Saxon fathers?' said Coningsby. 'I apprehend
the northern nations have a greater sense of cleanliness, of propriety,
of what we call comfort?'

'By no means,' said the stranger; 'the East is the land of the Bath.
Moses and Mahomet made cleanliness religion.'

'You will let me help you?' said Coningsby, offering him a plate which
he had filled.

'I thank you,' said the stranger, 'but it is one of my bread days. With
your permission this shall be my dish;' and he cut from the large loaf a
supply of crusts.

''Tis but unsavoury fare after a gallop,' said Coningsby.

'Ah! you are proud of your bacon and your eggs,' said the stranger,
smiling, 'but I love corn and wine. They are our chief and our oldest
luxuries. Time has brought us substitutes, but how inferior! Man has
deified corn and wine! but not even the Chinese or the Irish have raised
temples to tea and potatoes.'

'But Ceres without Bacchus,' said Coningsby, 'how does that do? Think
you, under this roof, we could Invoke the god?'

'Let us swear by his body that we will try,' said the stranger.

Alas! the landlord was not a priest to Bacchus. But then these inquiries
led to the finest perry in the world. The young men agreed they had
seldom tasted anything more delicious; they sent for another bottle.
Coningsby, who was much interested by his new companion, enjoyed himself
amazingly.

A cheese, such as Derby alone can produce, could not induce the stranger
to be even partially inconstant to his crusts. But his talk was as
vivacious as if the talker had been stimulated by the juices of the
finest banquet. Coningsby had never met or read of any one like this
chance companion. His sentences were so short, his language so racy, his
voice rang so clear, his elocution was so complete. On all subjects his
mind seemed to be instructed, and his opinions formed. He flung out a
result in a few words; he solved with a phrase some deep problem that
men muse over for years. He said many things that were strange, yet
they immediately appeared to be true. Then, without the slightest air of
pretension or parade, he seemed to know everybody as well as everything.
Monarchs, statesmen, authors, adventurers, of all descriptions and of
all climes, if their names occurred in the conversation, he described
them in an epigrammatic sentence, or revealed their precise position,
character, calibre, by a curt dramatic trait. All this, too, without any
excitement of manner; on the contrary, with repose amounting almost
to nonchalance. If his address had any fault in it, it was rather a
deficiency of earnestness. A slight spirit of mockery played over his
speech even when you deemed him most serious; you were startled by his
sudden transitions from profound thought to poignant sarcasm. A very
singular freedom from passion and prejudice on every topic on which
they treated, might be some compensation for this want of earnestness,
perhaps was its consequence. Certainly it was difficult to ascertain his
precise opinions on many subjects, though his manner was frank even to
abandonment. And yet throughout his whole conversation, not a stroke of
egotism, not a word, not a circumstance escaped him, by which you could
judge of his position or purposes in life. As little did he seem to care
to discover those of his companion. He did not by any means monopolise
the conversation. Far from it; he continually asked questions, and
while he received answers, or had engaged his fellow-traveller in any
exposition of his opinion or feelings, he listened with a serious and
fixed attention, looking Coningsby in the face with a steadfast glance.

'I perceive,' said Coningsby, pursuing a strain of thought which the
other had indicated, 'that you have great confidence in the influence
of individual character. I also have some confused persuasions of that
kind. But it is not the Spirit of the Age.'

'The age does not believe in great men, because it does not possess
any,' replied the stranger. 'The Spirit of the Age is the very thing
that a great man changes.'

'But does he not rather avail himself of it?' inquired Coningsby.

'Parvenus do,' rejoined his companion; 'but not prophets, great
legislators, great conquerors. They destroy and they create.'

'But are these times for great legislators and great conquerors?' urged
Coningsby.

'When were they wanted more?' asked the stranger. 'From the throne to
the hovel all call for a guide. You give monarchs constitutions to
teach them sovereignty, and nations Sunday-schools to inspire them with
faith.'

'But what is an individual,' exclaimed Coningsby, 'against a vast public
opinion?'

'Divine,' said the stranger. 'God made man in His own image; but the
Public is made by Newspapers, Members of Parliament, Excise Officers,
Poor Law Guardians. Would Philip have succeeded if Epaminondas had not
been slain? And if Philip had not succeeded? Would Prussia have existed
had Frederick not been born? And if Frederick had not been born? What
would have been the fate of the Stuarts if Prince Henry had not died,
and Charles I., as was intended, had been Archbishop of Canterbury?'

'But when men are young they want experience,' said Coningsby; 'and when
they have gained experience, they want energy.'

'Great men never want experience,' said the stranger.

'But everybody says that experience - '

'Is the best thing in the world, a treasure for you, for me, for
millions. But for a creative mind, less than nothing. Almost everything
that is great has been done by youth.'

'It is at least a creed flattering to our years,' said Coningsby, with a
smile.

'Nay,' said the stranger; 'for life in general there is but one decree.
Youth is a blunder; Manhood a struggle; Old Age a regret. Do not
suppose,' he added, smiling, 'that I hold that youth is genius; all that
I say is, that genius, when young, is divine. Why, the greatest captains
of ancient and modern times both conquered Italy at five-and-twenty!
Youth, extreme youth, overthrew the Persian Empire. Don John of Austria
won Lepanto at twenty-five, the greatest battle of modern time; had it
not been for the jealousy of Philip, the next year he would have been
Emperor of Mauritania. Gaston de Foix was only twenty-two when he stood
a victor on the plain of Ravenna. Every one remembers Condé and Rocroy
at the same age. Gustavus Adolphus died at thirty-eight. Look at his
captains: that wonderful Duke of Weimar, only thirty-six when he died.
Banier himself, after all his miracles, died at forty-five. Cortes was
little more than thirty when he gazed upon the golden cupolas of Mexico.
When Maurice of Saxony died at thirty-two, all Europe acknowledged the
loss of the greatest captain and the profoundest statesman of the age.
Then there is Nelson, Clive; but these are warriors, and perhaps you may
think there are greater things than war. I do not: I worship the Lord
of Hosts. But take the most illustrious achievements of civil prudence.
Innocent III., the greatest of the Popes, was the despot of Christendom
at thirty-seven. John de Medici was a Cardinal at fifteen, and according
to Guicciardini, baffled with his statecraft Ferdinand of Arragon
himself. He was Pope as Leo X. at thirty-seven. Luther robbed even him
of his richest province at thirty-five. Take Ignatius Loyola and John
Wesley, they worked with young brains. Ignatius was only thirty when he
made his pilgrimage and wrote the "Spiritual Exercises." Pascal wrote
a great work at sixteen, and died at thirty-seven, the greatest of
Frenchmen.

'Ah! that fatal thirty-seven, which reminds me of Byron, greater even as
a man than a writer. Was it experience that guided the pencil of Raphael
when he painted the palaces of Rome? He, too, died at thirty-seven.
Richelieu was Secretary of State at thirty-one. Well then, there were
Bolingbroke and Pitt, both ministers before other men left off cricket.
Grotius was in great practice at seventeen, and Attorney-General at
twenty-four. And Acquaviva; Acquaviva was General of the Jesuits,
ruled every cabinet in Europe, and colonised America before he was
thirty-seven. What a career!' exclaimed the stranger; rising from his
chair and walking up and down the room; 'the secret sway of Europe! That
was indeed a position! But it is needless to multiply instances! The
history of Heroes is the history of Youth.'

'Ah!' said Coningsby, 'I should like to be a great man.'

The stranger threw at him a scrutinising glance. His countenance was
serious. He said in a voice of almost solemn melody:

'Nurture your mind with great thoughts. To believe in the heroic makes
heroes.'

'You seem to me a hero,' said Coningsby, in a tone of real feeling,
which, half ashamed of his emotion, he tried to turn into playfulness.

'I am and must ever be,' said the stranger, 'but a dreamer of dreams.'
Then going towards the window, and changing into a familiar tone as if
to divert the conversation, he added, 'What a delicious afternoon! I
look forward to my ride with delight. You rest here?'

'No; I go on to Nottingham, where I shall sleep.'

'And I in the opposite direction.' And he rang the bell, and ordered his
horse.

'I long to see your mare again,' said Coningsby. 'She seemed to me so
beautiful.'

'She is not only of pure race,' said the stranger, 'but of the highest
and rarest breed in Arabia. Her name is "the Daughter of the Star."
She is a foal of that famous mare, which belonged to the Prince of the
Wahabees; and to possess which, I believe, was one of the principal
causes of war between that tribe and the Egyptians. The Pacha of Egypt
gave her to me, and I would not change her for her statue in pure gold,
even carved by Lysippus. Come round to the stable and see her.'

They went out together. It was a soft sunny afternoon; the air fresh
from the rain, but mild and exhilarating.

The groom brought forth the mare. 'The Daughter of the Star' stood
before Coningsby with her sinewy shape of matchless symmetry; her
burnished skin, black mane, legs like those of an antelope, her little
ears, dark speaking eye, and tail worthy of a Pacha. And who was her
master, and whither was she about to take him?

Coningsby was so naturally well-bred, that we may be sure it was not
curiosity; no, it was a finer feeling that made him hesitate and think a
little, and then say:

'I am sorry to part.'

'I also,' said the stranger. 'But life is constant separation.'

'I hope we may meet again,' said Coningsby.

'If our acquaintance be worth preserving,' said the stranger, 'you may
be sure it will not be lost.'

'But mine is not worth preserving,' said Coningsby, earnestly. 'It is
yours that is the treasure. You teach me things of which I have long
mused.'

The stranger took the bridle of 'the Daughter of the Star,' and turning
round with a faint smile, extended his hand to his companion.

'Your mind at least is nurtured with great thoughts,' said Coningsby;
'your actions should be heroic.'

'Action is not for me,' said the stranger; 'I am of that faith that the
Apostles professed before they followed their master.'

He vaulted into his saddle, 'the Daughter of the Star' bounded away as
if she scented the air of the Desert from which she and her rider had
alike sprung, and Coningsby remained in profound meditation.




CHAPTER II.


The day after his adventure at the Forest Inn, Coningsby arrived at
Beaumanoir. It was several years since he had visited the family of his
friend, who were indeed also his kin; and in his boyish days had often
proved that they were not unmindful of the affinity. This was a visit
that had been long counted on, long promised, and which a variety of
circumstances had hitherto prevented. It was to have been made by the
schoolboy; it was to be fulfilled by the man. For no less a character
could Coningsby under any circumstances now consent to claim, since he
was closely verging to the completion of his nineteenth year; and it
appeared manifest that if it were his destiny to do anything great,
he had but few years to wait before the full development of his power.
Visions of Gastons de Foix and Maurices of Saxony, statesmen giving
up cricket to govern nations, beardless Jesuits plunged in profound
abstraction in omnipotent cabinets, haunted his fancy from the moment he
had separated from his mysterious and deeply interesting companion. To
nurture his mind with great thoughts had ever been Coningsby's inspiring
habit. Was it also destined that he should achieve the heroic?

There are some books, when we close them; one or two in the course of
our life, difficult as it may be to analyse or ascertain the cause; our
minds seem to have made a great leap. A thousand obscure things receive
light; a multitude of indefinite feelings are determined. Our intellect
grasps and grapples with all subjects with a capacity, a flexibility,
and a vigour, before unknown to us. It masters questions hitherto
perplexing, which are not even touched or referred to in the volume just
closed. What is this magic? It is the spirit of the supreme author, by
a magentic influence blending with our sympathising intelligence, that
directs and inspires it. By that mysterious sensibility we extend to
questions which he has not treated, the same intellectual force which he
has exercised over those which he has expounded. His genius for a time
remains in us. 'Tis the same with human beings as with books. All of us
encounter, at least once in our life, some individual who utters words
that make us think for ever.

There are men whose phrases are oracles; who condense in a sentence the
secrets of life; who blurt out an aphorism that forms a character or
illustrates an existence. A great thing is a great book; but greater
than all is the talk of a great man.

And what is a great man? Is it a Minister of State? Is it a victorious
General? A gentleman in the Windsor uniform? A Field Marshal covered
with stars? Is it a Prelate, or a Prince? A King, even an Emperor?



Online LibraryBenjamin DisraeliConingsby → online text (page 10 of 39)