Benjamin Disraeli.

Coningsby online

. (page 11 of 39)
Online LibraryBenjamin DisraeliConingsby → online text (page 11 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

It may be all these; yet these, as we must all daily feel, are not
necessarily great men. A great man is one who affects the mind of his
generation: whether he be a monk in his cloister agitating Christendom,
or a monarch crossing the Granicus, and giving a new character to the
Pagan World.

Our young Coningsby reached Beaumanoir in a state of meditation. He also
desired to be great. Not from the restless vanity that sometimes
impels youth to momentary exertion, by which they sometimes obtain a
distinction as evanescent as their energy. The ambition of our hero was
altogether of a different character. It was, indeed, at present not a
little vague, indefinite, hesitating, inquiring, sometimes desponding.
What were his powers? what should be his aim? were often to him, as to
all young aspirants, questions infinitely perplexing and full of pain.
But, on the whole, there ran through his character, notwithstanding his
many dazzling qualities and accomplishments, and his juvenile celebrity,
which has spoiled so much promise, a vein of grave simplicity that was
the consequence of an earnest temper, and of an intellect that would be
content with nothing short of the profound.

His was a mind that loved to pursue every question to the centre. But
it was not a spirit of scepticism that impelled this habit; on the
contrary, it was the spirit of faith. Coningsby found that he was born
in an age of infidelity in all things, and his heart assured him that a
want of faith was a want of nature. But his vigorous intellect could not
take refuge in that maudlin substitute for belief which consists in
a patronage of fantastic theories. He needed that deep and enduring
conviction that the heart and the intellect, feeling and reason united,
can alone supply. He asked himself why governments were hated,
and religions despised? Why loyalty was dead, and reverence only a
galvanised corpse?

These were indeed questions that had as yet presented themselves to his
thought in a crude and imperfect form; but their very occurrence showed
the strong predisposition of his mind. It was because he had not found
guides among his elders, that his thoughts had been turned to the
generation that he himself represented. The sentiment of veneration was
so developed in his nature, that he was exactly the youth that would
have hung with enthusiastic humility on the accents of some sage of old
in the groves of Academus, or the porch of Zeno. But as yet he had found
age only perplexed and desponding; manhood only callous and desperate.
Some thought that systems would last their time; others, that something
would turn up. His deep and pious spirit recoiled with disgust and
horror from such lax, chance-medley maxims, that would, in their
consequences, reduce man to the level of the brutes. Notwithstanding
a prejudice which had haunted him from his childhood, he had, when
the occasion offered, applied to Mr. Rigby for instruction, as one
distinguished in the republic of letters, as well as the realm of
politics; who assumed the guidance of the public mind, and, as the
phrase runs, was looked up to. Mr. Rigby listened at first to the
inquiries of Coningsby, urged, as they ever were, with a modesty and
deference which do not always characterise juvenile investigations, as
if Coningsby were speaking to him of the unknown tongues. But Mr.
Rigby was not a man who ever confessed himself at fault. He caught
up something of the subject as our young friend proceeded, and was
perfectly prepared, long before he had finished, to take the whole
conversation into his own hands.

Mr. Rigby began by ascribing everything to the Reform Bill, and then
referred to several of his own speeches on Schedule A. Then he told
Coningsby that want of religious Faith was solely occasioned by want of
churches; and want of Loyalty, by George IV. having shut himself up too
much at the cottage in Windsor Park, entirely against the advice of Mr.
Rigby. He assured Coningsby that the Church Commission was operating
wonders, and that with private benevolence, he had himself subscribed
1,000_l._, for Lord Monmouth, we should soon have churches enough. The
great question now was their architecture. Had George IV. lived all
would have been right. They would have been built on the model of the
Budhist pagoda. As for Loyalty, if the present King went regularly to
Ascot races, he had no doubt all would go right. Finally, Mr. Rigby
impressed on Coningsby to read the Quarterly Review with great
attention; and to make himself master of Mr. Wordy's History of the late
War, in twenty volumes, a capital work, which proves that Providence was
on the side of the Tories.

Coningsby did not reply to Mr. Rigby again; but worked on with his own
mind, coming often enough to sufficiently crude conclusions, and often
much perplexed and harassed. He tried occasionally his inferences on his
companions, who were intelligent and full of fervour. Millbank was more
than this. He was of a thoughtful mood; had also caught up from a new
school some principles, which were materials for discussion. One way or
other, however, before he quitted Eton there prevailed among this circle
of friends, the initial idea doubtless emanating from Coningsby, an
earnest, though a rather vague, conviction that the present state of
feeling in matters both civil and religious was not healthy; that there
must be substituted for this latitudinarianism something sound and deep,
fervent and well defined, and that the priests of this new faith must be
found among the New Generation; so that when the bright-minded rider
of 'the Daughter of the Star' descanted on the influence of individual
character, of great thoughts and heroic actions, and the divine power of
youth and genius, he touched a string that was the very heart-chord of
his companion, who listened with fascinated enthusiasm as he introduced
him to his gallery of inspiring models.

Coningsby arrived at Beaumanoir at a season when men can neither hunt
nor shoot. Great internal resources should be found in a country family
under such circumstances. The Duke and Duchess had returned from London
only a few days with their daughter, who had been presented this year.
They were all glad to find themselves again in the country, which they
loved and which loved them. One of their sons-in-law and his wife, and
Henry Sydney, completed the party.

There are few conjunctures in life of a more startling interest, than to
meet the pretty little girl that we have gambolled with in our boyhood,
and to find her changed in the lapse of a very few years, which in some
instances may not have brought a corresponding alteration in our own
appearance, into a beautiful woman. Something of this flitted over
Coningsby's mind, as he bowed, a little agitated from his surprise, to
Lady Theresa Sydney. All that he remembered had prepared him for beauty;
but not for the degree or character of beauty that he met. It was a
rich, sweet face, with blue eyes and dark lashes, and a nose that we
have no epithet in English to describe, but which charmed in Roxalana.
Her brown hair fell over her white and well turned shoulders in long and
luxuriant tresses. One has met something as brilliant and dainty in a
medallion of old Sèvres, or amid the terraces and gardens of Watteau.

Perhaps Lady Theresa, too, might have welcomed him with more freedom
had his appearance also more accorded with the image which he had left
behind. Coningsby was a boy then, as we described him in our first
chapter. Though only nineteen now, he had attained his full stature,
which was above the middle height, and time had fulfilled that promise
of symmetry in his figure, and grace in his mien, then so largely
intimated. Time, too, which had not yet robbed his countenance of any
of its physical beauty, had strongly developed the intellectual charm
by which it had ever been distinguished. As he bowed lowly before the
Duchess and her daughter, it would have been difficult to imagine a
youth of a mien more prepossessing and a manner more finished.

A manner that was spontaneous; nature's pure gift, the reflex of his
feeling. No artifice prompted that profound and polished homage. Not one
of those influences, the aggregate of whose sway produces, as they tell
us, the finished gentleman, had ever exercised its beneficent power on
our orphan, and not rarely forlorn, Coningsby. No clever and refined
woman, with her quick perception, and nice criticism that never offends
our self-love, had ever given him that education that is more precious
than Universities. The mild suggestions of a sister, the gentle raillery
of some laughing cousin, are also advantages not always appreciated at
the time, but which boys, when they have become men, often think over
with gratitude, and a little remorse at the ungracious spirit in
which they were received. Not even the dancing-master had afforded his
mechanical aid to Coningsby, who, like all Eton boys of his generation,
viewed that professor of accomplishments with frank repugnance. But even
in the boisterous life of school, Coningsby, though his style was free
and flowing, was always well-bred. His spirit recoiled from that gross
familiarity that is the characteristic of modern manners, and which
would destroy all forms and ceremonies merely because they curb and
control their own coarse convenience and ill-disguised selfishness. To
women, however, Coningsby instinctively bowed, as to beings set apart
for reverence and delicate treatment. Little as his experience was
of them, his spirit had been fed with chivalrous fancies, and he
entertained for them all the ideal devotion of a Surrey or a Sydney.
Instructed, if not learned, as books and thought had already made him in
men, he could not conceive that there were any other women in the world
than fair Geraldines and Countesses of Pembroke.

There was not a country-house in England that had so completely the air
of habitual residence as Beaumanoir. It is a charming trait, and
very rare. In many great mansions everything is as stiff, formal, and
tedious, as if your host were a Spanish grandee in the days of the
Inquisition. No ease, no resources; the passing life seems a solemn
spectacle in which you play a part. How delightful was the morning room
at Beaumanoir; from which gentlemen were not excluded with that assumed
suspicion that they can never enter it but for felonious purposes.
Such a profusion of flowers! Such a multitude of books! Such a various
prodigality of writing materials! So many easy chairs too, of so many
shapes; each in itself a comfortable home; yet nothing crowded. Woman
alone can organise a drawing-room; man succeeds sometimes in a library.
And the ladies' work! How graceful they look bending over their
embroidery frames, consulting over the arrangement of a group, or the
colour of a flower. The panniers and fanciful baskets, overflowing with
variegated worsted, are gay and full of pleasure to the eye, and give an
air of elegant business that is vivifying. Even the sight of employment

Then the morning costume of English women is itself a beautiful work of
art. At this period of the day they can find no rivals in other climes.
The brilliant complexions of the daughters of the north dazzle in
daylight; the illumined saloon levels all distinctions. One should see
them in their well-fashioned muslin dresses. What matrons, and what
maidens! Full of graceful dignity, fresher than the morn! And the
married beauty in her little lace cap. Ah, she is a coquette! A charming
character at all times; in a country-house an invaluable one.

A coquette is a being who wishes to please. Amiable being! If you do not
like her, you will have no difficulty in finding a female companion of
a different mood. Alas! coquettes are but too rare. 'Tis a career that
requires great abilities, infinite pains, a gay and airy spirit. 'Tis
the coquette that provides all amusement; suggests the riding party,
plans the picnic, gives and guesses charades, acts them. She is the
stirring element amid the heavy congeries of social atoms; the soul of
the house, the salt of the banquet. Let any one pass a very agreeable
week, or it may be ten days, under any roof, and analyse the cause of
his satisfaction, and one might safely make a gentle wager that his
solution would present him with the frolic phantom of a coquette.

'It is impossible that Mr. Coningsby can remember me!' said a clear
voice; and he looked round, and was greeted by a pair of sparkling eyes
and the gayest smile in the world.

It was Lady Everingham, the Duke's married daughter.


'And you walked here!' said Lady Everingham to Coningsby, when the stir
of arranging themselves at dinner had subsided. 'Only think, papa, Mr.
Coningsby walked here! I also am a great walker.'

'I had heard much of the forest,' said Coningsby.

'Which I am sure did not disappoint you,' said the Duke.

'But forests without adventures!' said Lady Everingham, a little
shrugging her pretty shoulders.

'But I had an adventure,' said Coningsby.

'Oh! tell it us by all means!' said the Lady, with great animation.
'Adventures are my weakness. I have had more adventures than any one.
Have I not had, Augustus?' she added, addressing her husband.

'But you make everything out to be an adventure, Isabel,' said Lord
Everingham. I dare say that Mr. Coningsby's was more substantial.' And
looking at our young friend, he invited him to inform them.

'I met a most extraordinary man,' said Coningsby.

'It should have been a heroine,' exclaimed Lady Everingham.

'Do you know anybody in this neighbourhood who rides the finest Arab in
the world?' asked Coningsby. 'She is called "the Daughter of the Star,"
and was given to her rider by the Pacha of Egypt.'

'This is really an adventure,' said Lady Everingham, interested.

'The Daughter of the Star!' said Lady Theresa. 'What a pretty name!
Percy has a horse called "Sunbeam."'

'A fine Arab, the finest in the world!' said the Duke, who was fond of
horse. 'Who can it be?'

'Can you throw any light on this, Mr. Lyle?' asked the Duchess of a
young man who sat next her.

He was a neighbour who had joined their dinner-party, Eustace Lyle,
a Roman Catholic, and the richest commoner in the county; for he had
succeeded to a great estate early in his minority, which had only this
year terminated.

'I certainly do not know the horse,' said Mr. Lyle; 'but if Mr.
Coningsby would describe the rider, perhaps - '

'He is a man something under thirty,' said Coningsby, 'pale, with dark
hair. We met in a sort of forest-inn during a storm. A most singular
man! Indeed, I never met any one who seemed to me so clever, or to say
such remarkable things.'

'He must have been the spirit of the storm,' said Lady Everingham.

'Charles Verney has a great deal of dark hair,' said Lady Theresa. 'But
then he is anything but pale, and his eyes are blue.'

'And certainly he keeps his wonderful things for your ear, Theresa,'
said her sister.

'I wish that Mr. Coningsby would tell us some of the wonderful things he
said,' said the Duchess, smiling.

'Take a glass of wine first with my mother, Coningsby,' said Henry
Sydney, who had just finished helping them all to fish.

Coningsby had too much tact to be entrapped into a long story. He
already regretted that he had been betrayed into any allusion to the
stranger. He had a wild, fanciful notion, that their meeting ought to
have been preserved as a sacred secret. But he had been impelled to
refer to it in the first instance by the chance observation of Lady
Everingham; and he had pursued his remark from the hope that the
conversation might have led to the discovery of the unknown. When he
found that his inquiry in this respect was unsuccessful, he was willing
to turn the conversation. In reply to the Duchess, then, he generally
described the talk of the stranger as full of lively anecdote and
epigrammatic views of life; and gave them, for example, a saying of an
illustrious foreign Prince, which was quite new and pointed, and which
Coningsby told well. This led to a new train of discourse. The Duke also
knew this illustrious foreign Prince, and told another story of him; and
Lord Everingham had played whist with this illustrious foreign Prince
often at the Travellers', and this led to a third story; none of them
too long. Then Lady Everingham came in again, and sparkled agreeably.
She, indeed, sustained throughout dinner the principal weight of the
conversation; but, as she asked questions of everybody, all seemed to
contribute. Even the voice of Mr. Lyle, who was rather bashful, was
occasionally heard in reply. Coningsby, who had at first unintentionally
taken a more leading part than he aspired to, would have retired
into the background for the rest of the dinner, but Lady Everingham
continually signalled him out for her questions, and as she sat opposite
to him, he seemed the person to whom they were principally addressed.

At length the ladies rose to retire. A very great personage in a
foreign, but not remote country, once mentioned to the writer of these
pages, that he ascribed the superiority of the English in political
life, in their conduct of public business and practical views of
affairs, in a great measure to 'that little half-hour' that separates,
after dinner, the dark from the fair sex. The writer humbly submitted,
that if the period of disjunction were strictly limited to a 'little
half-hour,' its salutary consequences for both sexes need not be
disputed, but that in England the 'little half-hour' was too apt
to swell into a term of far more awful character and duration. Lady
Everingham was a disciple of the 'very little half-hour' school; for, as
she gaily followed her mother, she said to Coningsby, whose gracious lot
it was to usher them from the apartment:

'Pray do not be too long at the Board of Guardians to-day.'

These were prophetic words; for no sooner were they all again seated,
than the Duke, filling his glass and pushing the claret to Coningsby,

'I suppose Lord Monmouth does not trouble himself much about the New
Poor Law?'

'Hardly,' said Coningsby. 'My grandfather's frequent absence from
England, which his health, I believe, renders quite necessary, deprives
him of the advantage of personal observation on a subject, than which I
can myself conceive none more deeply interesting.'

'I am glad to hear you say so,' said the Duke, 'and it does you great
credit, and Henry too, whose attention, I observe, is directed very much
to these subjects. In my time, the young men did not think so much of
such things, and we suffer consequently. By the bye, Everingham,
you, who are a Chairman of a Board of Guardians, can give me some
information. Supposing a case of out-door relief - '

'I could not suppose anything so absurd,' said the son-in-law.

'Well,' rejoined the Duke, 'I know your views on that subject, and it
certainly is a question on which there is a good deal to be said. But
would you under any circumstances give relief out of the Union, even if
the parish were to save a considerable sum?'

'I wish I knew the Union where such a system was followed,' said Lord
Everingham; and his Grace seemed to tremble under his son-in-law's

The Duke had a good heart, and not a bad head. If he had not made in
his youth so many Latin and English verses, he might have acquired
considerable information, for he had a natural love of letters, though
his pack were the pride of England, his barrel seldom missed, and his
fortune on the turf, where he never betted, was a proverb. He was good,
and he wished to do good; but his views were confused from want of
knowledge, and his conduct often inconsistent because a sense of duty
made him immediately active; and he often acquired in the consequent
experience a conviction exactly contrary to that which had prompted his

His Grace had been a great patron and a zealous administrator of the New
Poor Law. He had been persuaded that it would elevate the condition of
the labouring class. His son-in-law, Lord Everingham, who was a Whig,
and a clearheaded, cold-blooded man, looked upon the New Poor Law as
another Magna Charta. Lord Everingham was completely master of the
subject. He was himself the Chairman of one of the most considerable
Unions of the kingdom. The Duke, if he ever had a misgiving, had no
chance in argument with his son-in-law. Lord Everingham overwhelmed
him with quotations from Commissioners' rules and Sub-commissioners'
reports, statistical tables, and references to dietaries. Sometimes with
a strong case, the Duke struggled to make a fight; but Lord Everingham,
when he was at fault for a reply, which was very rare, upbraided his
father-in-law with the abuses of the old system, and frightened him with
visions of rates exceeding rentals.

Of late, however, a considerable change had taken place in the Duke's
feelings on this great question. His son Henry entertained strong
opinions upon it, and had combated his father with all the fervour of a
young votary. A victory over his Grace, indeed, was not very difficult.
His natural impulse would have enlisted him on the side, if not of
opposition to the new system, at least of critical suspicion of its
spirit and provisions. It was only the statistics and sharp acuteness
of his son-in-law that had, indeed, ever kept him to his colours. Lord
Henry would not listen to statistics, dietary tables, Commissioners'
rides, Sub-commissioners' reports. He went far higher than his father;
far deeper than his brother-in-law. He represented to the Duke that the
order of the peasantry was as ancient, legal, and recognised an order as
the order of the nobility; that it had distinct rights and privileges,
though for centuries they had been invaded and violated, and permitted
to fall into desuetude. He impressed upon the Duke that the parochial
constitution of this country was more important than its political
constitution; that it was more ancient, more universal in its influence;
and that this parochial constitution had already been shaken to its
centre by the New Poor Law. He assured his father that it would never be
well for England until this order of the peasantry was restored to its
pristine condition; not merely in physical comfort, for that must vary
according to the economical circumstances of the time, like that of
every class; but to its condition in all those moral attributes which
make a recognised rank in a nation; and which, in a great degree, are
independent of economics, manners, customs, ceremonies, rights, and

'Henry thinks,' said Lord Everingham, 'that the people are to be fed by
dancing round a May-pole.'

'But will the people be more fed because they do not dance round a
May-pole?' urged Lord Henry.

'Obsolete customs!' said Lord Everingham.

'And why should dancing round a May-pole be more obsolete than holding a
Chapter of the Garter?' asked Lord Henry.

The Duke, who was a blue ribbon, felt this a home thrust. 'I must say,'
said his Grace, 'that I for one deeply regret that our popular customs
have been permitted to fall so into desuetude.'

'The Spirit of the Age is against such things,' said Lord Everingham.

'And what is the Spirit of the Age?' asked Coningsby.

'The Spirit of Utility,' said Lord Everingham.

'And you think then that ceremony is not useful?' urged Coningsby,

'It depends upon circumstances,' said Lord Everingham. 'There are some
ceremonies, no doubt, that are very proper, and of course very useful.
But the best thing we can do for the labouring classes is to provide
them with work.'

'But what do you mean by the labouring classes, Everingham?' asked Lord
Henry. 'Lawyers are a labouring class, for instance, and by the bye
sufficiently provided with work. But would you approve of Westminster
Hall being denuded of all its ceremonies?'

'And the long vacation being abolished?' added Coningsby.

'Theresa brings me terrible accounts of the sufferings of the poor about
us,' said the Duke, shaking his head.

'Women think everything to be suffering!' said Lord Everingham.

'How do you find them about you, Mr. Lyle?' continued the Duke.

'I have revived the monastic customs at St. Genevieve,' said the young
man, blushing. 'There is an almsgiving twice a-week.'

'I am sure I wish I could see the labouring classes happy,' said the

'Oh! pray do not use, my dear father, that phrase, the labouring
classes!' said Lord Henry. 'What do you think, Coningsby, the other day
we had a meeting in this neighbourhood to vote an agricultural petition

Online LibraryBenjamin DisraeliConingsby → online text (page 11 of 39)