Benjamin Disraeli.

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the spell. She tried to rival his power; to cope with him, and with
the same weapons. But prompt as was her thought and bright as was
its expression, her heart beat in tumult; and, with all her apparent
serenity, her agitated soul was a prey of absorbing passion. She could
not contend with that intelligent, yet inscrutable, eye; with that
manner so full of interest and respect, and yet so tranquil. Besides,
they were not on equal terms. Here was a girl contending with a man
learned in the world's way.

Between Sidonia and Coningsby there at once occurred companionship. The
morning after his arrival they went out shooting together. After a long
ramble they would stretch themselves on the turf under a shady tree,
often by the side of some brook where the cresses grow, that added
a luxury to their sporting-meal; and then Coningsby would lead their
conversation to some subject on which Sidonia would pour out his mind
with all that depth of reflection, variety of knowledge, and richness
of illustrative memory, which distinguished him; and which offered so
striking a contrast to the sharp talent, the shallow information, and
the worldly cunning, that make a Rigby.

This fellowship between Sidonia and Coningsby elevated the latter still
more in the estimation of Lucretia, and rendered her still more desirous
of gaining his good will and opinion. A great friendship seemed to have
arisen between them, and the world began to believe that there must be
some foundation for Madame Colonna's innuendos. That lady herself
was not in the least alarmed by the attention which Sidonia paid her
step-daughter. It was, of course, well known that Sidonia was not a
marrying man. He was, however, a great friend of Mr. Coningsby, his
presence and society brought Coningsby and Lucretia more together; and
however flattered her daughter might be for the moment by Sidonia's
homage, still, as she would ultimately find out, if indeed she ever
cared so to do, that Sidonia could only be her admirer, Madame Colonna
had no kind of doubt that ultimately Coningsby would be Lucretia's
husband, as she had arranged from the first.

The Princess Lucretia was a fine horse-woman, though she rarely joined
the various riding-parties that were daily formed at the Castle. Often,
indeed, attended only by her groom, she met the equestrians. Now she
would ride with Sidonia and Coningsby, and as a female companion was
indispensable, she insisted upon La Petite accompanying her. This was a
fearful trial for Flora, but she encountered it, encouraged by the kind
solicitude of Coningsby, who always seemed her friend.

Very shortly after the arrival of Sidonia, the Grand-duke and his suite
quitted the Castle, which had been his Highness' head-quarters during
his visit to the manufacturing districts; but no other great change in
the assembled company occurred for some little time.




CHAPTER XIII.


'You will observe one curious trait,' said Sidonia to Coningsby, 'in the
history of this country: the depository of power is always unpopular;
all combine against it; it always falls. Power was deposited in the
great Barons; the Church, using the King for its instrument, crushed the
great Barons. Power was deposited in the Church; the King, bribing the
Parliament, plundered the Church. Power was deposited in the King; the
Parliament, using the People, beheaded the King, expelled the King,
changed the King, and, finally, for a King substituted an administrative
officer. For one hundred and fifty years Power has been deposited in the
Parliament, and for the last sixty or seventy years it has been becoming
more and more unpopular. In 1830 it was endeavoured by a reconstruction
to regain the popular affection; but, in truth, as the Parliament then
only made itself more powerful, it has only become more odious. As we
see that the Barons, the Church, the King, have in turn devoured each
other, and that the Parliament, the last devourer, remains, it is
impossible to resist the impression that this body also is doomed to be
destroyed; and he is a sagacious statesman who may detect in what form
and in what quarter the great consumer will arise.'

'You take, then, a dark view of our position?'

'Troubled, not dark. I do not ascribe to political institutions that
paramount influence which it is the feeling of this age to attribute to
them. The Senate that confronted Brennus in the Forum was the same body
that registered in an after-age the ribald decrees of a Nero. Trial
by jury, for example, is looked upon by all as the Palladium of our
liberties; yet a jury, at a very recent period of our own history, the
reign of Charles II., was a tribunal as iniquitous as the Inquisition.'
And a graver expression stole over the countenance of Sidonia as he
remembered what that Inquisition had operated on his own race and his
own destiny. 'There are families in this country,' he continued, 'of
both the great historical parties, that in the persecution of their
houses, the murder and proscription of some of their most illustrious
members, found judges as unjust and relentless in an open jury of their
countrymen as we did in the conclaves of Madrid and Seville.'

'Where, then, would you look for hope?'

'In what is more powerful than laws and institutions, and without which
the best laws and the most skilful institutions may be a dead letter,
or the very means of tyranny in the national character. It is not in
the increased feebleness of its institutions that I see the peril of
England; it is in the decline of its character as a community.'

'And yet you could scarcely describe this as an age of corruption?'

'Not of political corruption. But it is an age of social
disorganisation, far more dangerous in its consequences, because far
more extensive. You may have a corrupt government and a pure community;
you may have a corrupt community and a pure administration. Which would
you elect?'

Neither,' said Coningsby; 'I wish to see a people full of faith, and a
government full of duty.'

'Rely upon it,' said Sidonia, 'that England should think more of the
community and less of the government.'

'But tell me, what do you understand by the term national character?'

'A character is an assemblage of qualities; the character of England
should be an assemblage of great qualities.'

'But we cannot deny that the English have great virtues.'

'The civilisation of a thousand years must produce great virtues; but we
are speaking of the decline of public virtue, not its existence.'

'In what, then, do you trace that decline?'

'In the fact that the various classes of this country are arrayed
against each other.'

'But to what do you attribute those reciprocal hostilities?'

'Not entirely, not even principally, to those economical causes of which
we hear so much. I look upon all such as secondary causes, which, in a
certain degree, must always exist, which obtrude themselves in troubled
times, and which at all times it is the business of wise statesmen to
watch, to regulate, to ameliorate, to modify.'

'I am speaking to elicit truth, not to maintain opinions,' said
Coningsby; 'for I have none,' he added, mournfully.

'I think,' said Sidonia, 'that there is no error so vulgar as to believe
that revolutions are occasioned by economical causes. They come in,
doubtless, very often to precipitate a catastrophe; very rarely do they
occasion one. I know no period, for example, when physical comfort
was more diffused in England than in 1640. England had a moderate
population, a very improved agriculture, a rich commerce; yet she was
on the eve of the greatest and most violent changes that she has as yet
experienced.'

'That was a religious movement.'

'Admit it; the cause, then, was not physical. The imagination of England
rose against the government. It proves, then, that when that faculty is
astir in a nation, it will sacrifice even physical comfort to follow its
impulses.'

'Do you think, then, there is a wild desire for extensive political
change in the country?'

'Hardly that: England is perplexed at the present moment, not inventive.
That will be the next phasis in her moral state, and to that I wish
to draw your thoughts. For myself, while I ascribe little influence to
physical causes for the production of this perplexity, I am still less
of opinion that it can be removed by any new disposition of political
power. It would only aggravate the evil. That would be recurring to
the old error of supposing you can necessarily find national content in
political institutions. A political institution is a machine; the motive
power is the national character. With that it rests whether the
machine will benefit society, or destroy it. Society in this country is
perplexed, almost paralysed; in time it will move, and it will devise.
How are the elements of the nation to be again blended together? In what
spirit is that reorganisation to take place?'

'To know that would be to know everything.'

'At least let us free ourselves from the double ignorance of the
Platonists. Let us not be ignorant that we are ignorant.'

'I have emancipated myself from that darkness for a long time, 'said
Coningsby. 'Long has my mind been musing over these thoughts, but to me
all is still obscurity.'

'In this country,' said Sidonia, 'since the peace, there has been an
attempt to advocate a reconstruction of society on a purely rational
basis. The principle of Utility has been powerfully developed. I speak
not with lightness of the labours of the disciples of that school. I bow
to intellect in every form: and we should be grateful to any school of
philosophers, even if we disagree with them; doubly grateful in this
country, where for so long a period our statesmen were in so pitiable an
arrear of public intelligence. There has been an attempt to reconstruct
society on a basis of material motives and calculations. It has failed.
It must ultimately have failed under any circumstances; its failure in
an ancient and densely-peopled kingdom was inevitable. How limited is
human reason, the profoundest inquirers are most conscious. We are not
indebted to the Reason of man for any of the great achievements which
are the landmarks of human action and human progress. It was not Reason
that besieged Troy; it was not Reason that sent forth the Saracen
from the Desert to conquer the world; that inspired the Crusades; that
instituted the Monastic orders; it was not Reason that produced
the Jesuits; above all, it was not Reason that created the French
Revolution. Man is only truly great when he acts from the passions;
never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination. Even Mormon
counts more votaries than Bentham.'

'And you think, then, that as Imagination once subdued the State,
Imagination may now save it?'

'Man is made to adore and to obey: but if you will not command him, if
you give him nothing to worship, he will fashion his own divinities, and
find a chieftain in his own passions.'

'But where can we find faith in a nation of sectaries? Who can feel
loyalty to a sovereign of Downing Street?'

'I speak of the eternal principles of human nature, you answer me with
the passing accidents of the hour. Sects rise and sects disappear. Where
are the Fifth-Monarchy men? England is governed by Downing Street; once
it was governed by Alfred and Elizabeth.'




CHAPTER XIV.


About this time a steeple-chase in the West of England had attracted
considerable attention. This sport was then of recent introduction in
England, and is, in fact, an importation of Irish growth, although it
has flourished in our soil. A young guardsman, who was then a guest at
the Castle, and who had been in garrison in Ireland, had some experience
of this pastime in the Kildare country, and he proposed that they should
have a steeple-chase at Coningsby. This was a suggestion very agreeable
to the Marquess of Beaumanoir, celebrated for his feats of horsemanship,
and, indeed, to most of the guests. It was agreed that the race should
come off at once, before any of the present company, many of whom
gave symptoms of being on the wing, had quitted the Castle. The young
guardsman and Mr. Guy Flouncey had surveyed the country and had selected
a line which they esteemed very appropriate for the scene of action.
From a hill of common land you looked down upon the valley of Coningsby,
richly cultivated, deeply ditched, and stiffly fenced; the valley was
bounded by another rising ground, and the scene was admirably calculated
to give an extensive view to a multitude.

The distance along the valley was to be two miles out, and home again;
the starting-post being also the winning-post, and the flags, which were
placed on every fence which the horses were to pass, were to be passed
on the left hand of the rider both going and coming; so that although
the horses had to leap the same fences forward and backward, they
could not come over the same place twice. In the last field before they
turned, was a brook seventeen feet clear from side to side, with good
taking off both banks. Here real business commenced.

Lord Monmouth highly approved the scheme, but mentioned that the stakes
must be moderate, and open to the whole county. The neighbourhood had
a week of preparation, and the entries for the Coningsby steeple-chase
were numerous. Lord Monmouth, after a reserve for his own account,
placed his stable at the service of his guests. For himself, he offered
to back his horse, Sir Robert, which was to be ridden by his grandson.

Now, nothing was spoken or thought of at Coningsby Castle except the
coming sport. The ladies shared the general excitement. They embroidered
handkerchiefs, and scarfs, and gloves, with the respective colours of
the rivals, and tried to make jockey-caps. Lady St. Julians postponed
her intended departure in consequence. Madame Colonna wished that some
means could be contrived by which they might all win.

Sidonia, with the other competitors, had ridden over the ground and
glanced at the brook with the eye of a workman. On his return to the
Castle he sent a despatch for some of his stud.

Coningsby was all anxiety to win. He was proud of the confidence of
his grandfather in backing him. He had a powerful horse and a firstrate
fencer, and he was resolved himself not to flinch. On the night before
the race, retiring somewhat earlier than usual to his chamber, he
observed on his dressing-table a small packet addressed to his name, and
in an unknown handwriting. Opening it, he found a pretty racing-jacket
embroidered with his colours of pink and white. This was a perplexing
circumstance, but he fancied it on the whole a happy omen. And who was
the donor? Certainly not the Princess Lucretia, for he had observed her
fashioning some maroon ribbons, which were the colours of Sidonia. It
could scarcely be from Mrs. Guy Flouncey. Perhaps Madame Colonna to
please the Marquess? Thinking over this incident he fell asleep.

The morning before the race Sidonia's horses arrived. All went to
examine them at the stables. Among them was an Arab mare. Coningsby
recognised the Daughter of the Star. She was greatly admired for her
points; but Guy Flouncey whispered to Mr. Melton that she never could do
the work.

'But Lord Beaumanoir says he is all for speed against strength in these
affairs,' said Mr. Melton.

Guy Flouncey smiled incredulously.

The night before the race it rained rather heavily.

'I take it the country will not be very like the Deserts of Arabia,'
said Mr. Guy Flouncey, with a knowing look to Mr. Melton, who was noting
a bet in his memorandum-book.

The morning was fine, clear, and sunny, with a soft western breeze. The
starting-post was about three miles from the Castle; but, long before
the hour, the surrounding hills were covered with people; squire and
farmer; with no lack of their wives and daughters; many a hind in his
smock-frock, and many an 'operative' from the neighbouring factories.
The 'gentlemen riders' gradually arrived. The entries were very
numerous, though it was understood that not more than a dozen would
come to the post, and half of these were the guests of Lord Monmouth.
At half-past one the _cortège_ from the Castle arrived, and took up the
post which had been prepared for them on the summit of the hill. Lord
Monmouth was much cheered on his arrival. In the carriage with him
were Madame Colonna and Lady St. Julians. The Princess Lucretia, Lady
Gaythorp, Mrs. Guy Flouncey, accompanied by Lord Eskdale and other
cavaliers, formed a brilliant company. There was scarcely a domestic
in the Castle who was not there. The comedians, indeed, did not care to
come, but Villebecque prevailed upon Flora to drive with him to the race
in a buggy he borrowed of the steward.

The start was to be at two o'clock. The 'gentlemen jockeys' are
mustered. Never were riders mounted and appointed in better style. The
stewards and the clerk of the course attend them to the starting-post.
There they are now assembled. Guy Flouncey takes up his stirrup-leathers
a hole; Mr. Melton looks at his girths. In a few moments, the
irrevocable monosyllable will be uttered.

The bugle sounds for them to face about; the clerk of the course sings
out, 'Gentlemen, are you all ready?' No objection made, the word given
to go, and fifteen riders start in excellent style.

Prince Colonna, who rode like Prince Rupert, took the lead, followed
close by a stout yeoman on an old white horse of great provincial
celebrity, who made steady running, and, from his appearance and action,
an awkward customer. The rest, with two exceptions, followed in a
cluster at no great distance, and in this order they continued, with
very slight variation, for the first two miles, though there were
several ox-fences, and one or two of them remarkably stiff. Indeed, they
appeared more like horses running over a course than over a country. The
two exceptions were Lord Beaumanoir on his horse Sunbeam, and Sidonia on
the Arab. These kept somewhat slightly in the rear.

Almost in this wise they approached the dreaded brook. Indeed, with the
exception of the last two riders, who were about thirty yards behind, it
seemed that you might have covered the rest of the field with a sheet.
They arrived at the brook at the same moment: seventeen feet of water
between strong sound banks is no holiday work; but they charged with
unfaltering intrepidity. But what a revolution in their spirited order
did that instant produce! A masked battery of canister and grape could
not have achieved more terrible execution. Coningsby alone clearly
lighted on the opposing bank; but, for the rest of them, it seemed for a
moment that they were all in the middle of the brook, one over another,
splashing, kicking, swearing; every one trying to get out and keep
others in. Mr. Melton and the stout yeoman regained their saddles and
were soon again in chase. The Prince lost his horse, and was not alone
in his misfortune. Mr. Guy Flouncey lay on his back with a horse across
his diaphragm; only his head above the water, and his mouth full of
chickweed and dockleaves. And if help had not been at hand, he and
several others might have remained struggling in their watery bed for
a considerable period. In the midst of this turmoil, the Marquess and
Sidonia at the same moment cleared the brook.

Affairs now became interesting. Here Coningsby took up the running,
Sidonia and the Marquess lying close at his quarters. Mr. Melton had
gone the wrong side of a flag, and the stout yeoman, though close at
hand, was already trusting much to his spurs. In the extreme distance
might be detected three or four stragglers. Thus they continued until
within three fields of home. A ploughed field finished the old white
horse; the yeoman struck his spurs to the rowels, but the only effect
of the experiment was, that the horse stood stock-still. Coningsby,
Sidonia, and the Marquess were now all together. The winning-post is in
sight, and a high and strong gate leads to the last field. Coningsby,
looking like a winner, gallantly dashed forward and sent Sir Robert at
the gate, but he had over-estimated his horse's powers at this point of
the game, and a rattling fall was the consequence: however, horse and
rider were both on the right side, and Coningsby was in his saddle and
at work again in a moment. It seemed that the Marquess was winning.
There was only one more fence; and that the foot people had made a
breach in by the side of a gate-post, and wide enough, as was said, for
a broad-wheeled waggon to travel by. Instead of passing straight over
this gap, Sunbeam swerved against the gate and threw his rider. This
was decisive. The Daughter of the Star, who was still going beautifully,
pulling double, and her jockey sitting still, sprang over the gap
and went in first; Coningsby, on Sir Robert, being placed second. The
distance measured was about four miles; there were thirty-nine leaps;
and it was done under fifteen minutes.

Lord Monmouth was well content with the prowess of his grandson, and
his extreme cordiality consoled Coningsby under a defeat which was very
vexatious. It was some alleviation that he was beaten by Sidonia.
Madame Colonna even shed tears at her young friend's disappointment, and
mourned it especially for Lucretia, who had said nothing, though a flush
might be observed on her usually pale countenance. Villebecque, who had
betted, was so extremely excited by the whole affair, especially during
the last three minutes, that he quite forgot his quiet companion, and
when he looked round he found Flora fainting.

'You rode well,' said Sidonia to Coningsby; 'but your horse was more
strong than swift. After all, this thing is a race; and, notwithstanding
Solomon, in a race speed must win.'




CHAPTER XV.


Notwithstanding the fatigues of the morning, the evening was passed with
great gaiety at the Castle. The gentlemen all vowed that, far from being
inconvenienced by their mishaps, they felt, on the whole, rather better
for them. Mr. Guy Flouncey, indeed, did not seem quite so limber
and flexible as usual; and the young guardsman, who had previously
discoursed in an almost alarming style of the perils and feats of the
Kildare country, had subsided into a remarkable reserve. The Provincials
were delighted with Sidonia's riding, and even the Leicestershire
gentlemen admitted that he was a 'customer.'

Lord Monmouth beckoned to Coningsby to sit by him on the sofa, and spoke
of his approaching University life. He gave his grandson a great deal of
good advice: told him to avoid drinking, especially if he ever chanced
to play cards, which he hoped he never would; urged the expediency of
never borrowing money, and of confining his loans to small sums, and
then only to friends of whom he wished to get rid; most particularly
impressed on him never to permit his feelings to be engaged by any
woman; nobody, he assured Coningsby, despised that weakness more than
women themselves. Indeed, feeling of any kind did not suit the present
age: it was not _bon ton_; and in some degree always made a man
ridiculous. Coningsby was always to have before him the possible
catastrophe of becoming ridiculous. It was the test of conduct, Lord
Monmouth said; a fear of becoming ridiculous is the best guide in life,
and will save a man from all sorts of scrapes. For the rest, Coningsby
was to appear at Cambridge as became Lord Monmouth's favourite grandson.
His grandfather had opened an account for him with Drummonds', on whom
he was to draw for his considerable allowance; and if by any chance he
found himself in a scrape, no matter of what kind, he was to be sure to
write to his grandfather, who would certainly get him out of it.

'Your departure is sudden,' said the Princess Lucretia, in a low deep
tone to Sidonia, who was sitting by her side and screened from general
observation by the waltzers who whirled by.

'Departures should be sudden.'

'I do not like departures,' said the Princess.

'Nor did the Queen of Sheba when she quitted Solomon. You know what she
did?'

'Tell me.'

'She wept very much, and let one of the King's birds fly into the
garden. "You are freed from your cage," she said; "but I am going back
to mine."'

'But you never weep?' said the Princess.

'Never.'

'And are always free?'

'So are men in the Desert.'

'But your life is not a Desert?'

'It at least resembles the Desert in one respect: it is useless.'

'The only useless life is woman's.'

'Yet there have been heroines,' said Sidonia.

'The Queen of Sheba,' said the Princess, smiling.




Online LibraryBenjamin DisraeliConingsby → online text (page 20 of 39)