Alice, or the Mysteries — Book 03

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BOOK III.

Harsh things he mitigates, and pride subdues.
Ex. SOLON: Eleg.

CHAPTER I.

  YOU still are what you were, sir!

    . . . . . .

  . . . With most quick agility could turn

  And return; make knots and undo them,

  Give forked counsel.—Volpone, or the Fox.

BEFORE a large table, covered with parliamentary papers, sat Lumley Lord
Vargrave. His complexion, though still healthy, had faded from the
freshness of hue which distinguished him in youth. His features, always
sharp, had grown yet more angular: his brows seemed to project more
broodingly over his eyes, which, though of undiminished brightness, were
sunk deep in their sockets, and had lost much of their quick
restlessness. The character of his mind had begun to stamp itself on the
physiognomy, especially on the mouth when in repose. It was, a face
striking for acute intelligence, for concentrated energy; but there was a
something written in it which said, “BEWARE!” It would have inspired any
one who had mixed much amongst men with a vague suspicion and distrust.

Lumley had been always careful, though plain, in dress; but there was now
a more evident attention bestowed on his person than he had ever
manifested in youth,—while there was something of the Roman’s celebrated
foppery in the skill with which his hair was arranged on his high
forehead, so as either to conceal or relieve a partial baldness at the
temples. Perhaps, too, from the possession of high station, or the habit
of living only amongst the great, there was a certain dignity insensibly
diffused over his whole person that was not noticeable in his earlier
years, when a certain ton de garnison was blended with his ease of
manners. Yet, even now, dignity was not his prevalent characteristic;
and in ordinary occasions, or mixed society, he still found a familiar
frankness a more useful species of simulation. At the time we now treat
of, Lord Vargrave was leaning his cheek on one hand, while the other
rested idly on the papers methodically arranged before him. He appeared
to have suspended his labours, and to be occupied in thought. It was, in
truth, a critical period in the career of Lord Vargrave.

From the date of his accession to the peerage, the rise of Lumley Ferrers
had been less rapid and progressive than he himself could have foreseen.
At first, all was sunshine before him; he had contrived to make himself
useful to his party; he had also made himself personally popular. To the
ease and cordiality of his happy address, he added the seemingly careless
candour so often mistaken for honesty; while, as there was nothing showy
or brilliant in his abilities or oratory—nothing that aspired far above
the pretensions of others, and aroused envy by mortifying self-love—he
created but little jealousy even amongst the rivals before whom he
obtained precedence. For some time, therefore, he went smoothly on,
continuing to rise in the estimation of his party, and commanding a
certain respect from the neutral public, by acknowledged and eminent
talents in the details of business; for his quickness of penetration, and
a logical habit of mind, enabled him to grapple with and generalize the
minutiae of official labour or of legislative enactments with a masterly
success. But as the road became clearer to his steps, his ambition
became more evident and daring. Naturally dictatorial and presumptuous,
his early suppleness to superiors was now exchanged for a self-willed
pertinacity, which often displeased the more haughty leaders of his
party, and often wounded the more vain. His pretensions were scanned
with eyes more jealous and less tolerant than at first. Proud
aristocrats began to recollect that a mushroom peerage was supported but
by a scanty fortune; the men of more dazzling genius began to sneer at
the red-tape minister as a mere official manager of details; he lost much
of the personal popularity which had been one secret of his power. But
what principally injured him in the eyes of his party and the public were
certain ambiguous and obscure circumstances connected with a short period
when himself and his associates were thrown out of office. At this time,
it was noticeable that the journals of the Government that succeeded were
peculiarly polite to Lord Vargrave, while they covered all his coadjutors
with obloquy: and it was more than suspected that secret negotiations
between himself and the new ministry were going on, when suddenly the
latter broke up, and Lord Vargrave’s proper party were reinstated. The
vague suspicions that attached to Vargrave were somewhat strengthened in
the opinion of the public by the fact that he was at first left out of
the restored administration; and when subsequently, after a speech which
showed that he could be mischievous if not propitiated, he was
readmitted, it was precisely to the same office he had held before,—an
office which did not admit him into the Cabinet. Lumley, burning with
resentment, longed to decline the offer; but, alas! he was poor, and,
what was worse, in debt; “his poverty, but not his will, consented.” He
was reinstated; but though prodigiously improved as a debater, he felt
that he had not advanced as a public man. His ambition inflamed by his
discontent, he had, since his return to office, strained every nerve to
strengthen his position. He met the sarcasms on his poverty by greatly
increasing his expenditure, and by advertising everywhere his engagement
to an heiress whose fortune, great as it was, he easily contrived to
magnify. As his old house in Great George Street—well fitted for the
bustling commoner—was no longer suited to the official and fashionable
peer, he had, on his accession to the title, exchanged that respectable
residence for a large mansion in Hamilton Place; and his sober dinners
were succeeded by splendid banquets. Naturally, he had no taste for such
things; his mind was too nervous, and his temper too hard, to take
pleasure in luxury or ostentation. But now, as ever he acted upon a
system
. Living in a country governed by the mightiest and wealthiest
aristocracy in the world, which, from the first class almost to the
lowest, ostentation pervades,—the very backbone and marrow of
society,—he felt that to fall far short of his rivals in display was to
give them an advantage which he could not compensate either by the power
of his connections or the surpassing loftiness of his character and
genius. Playing for a great game, and with his eyes open to all the
consequences, he cared not for involving his private fortunes in a
lottery in which a great prize might be drawn. To do Vargrave justice,
money with him had never been an object, but a means; he was grasping,
but not avaricious. If men much richer than Lord Vargrave find State
distinctions very expensive, and often ruinous, it is not to be supposed
that his salary, joined to so moderate a private fortune, could support
the style in which he lived. His income was already deeply mortgaged,
and debt accumulated upon debt. Nor had this man, so eminent for the
management of public business, any of that talent which springs from
justice, and makes its possessor a skilful manager of his own affairs.
Perpetually absorbed in intrigues and schemes, he was too much engaged in
cheating others on a large scale to have time to prevent being himself
cheated on a small one. He never looked into bills till he was compelled
to pay them; and he never calculated the amount of an expense that seemed
the least necessary to his purposes. But still Lord Vargrave relied upon
his marriage with the wealthy Evelyn to relieve him from all his
embarrassments; and if a doubt of the realization of that vision ever
occurred to him, still public life had splendid prizes. Nay, should he
fail with Miss Cameron, he even thought that, by good management, he
might ultimately make it worth while to his colleagues to purchase his
absence with the gorgeous bribe of the Governor-Generalship of India.

As oratory is an art in which practice and the dignity of station produce
marvellous improvement, so Lumley had of late made effects in the House
of Lords of which he had once been judged incapable. It is true that no
practice and no station can give men qualities in which they are wholly
deficient; but these advantages can bring out in the best light all the
qualities they do possess. The glow of a generous imagination, the
grasp of a profound statesmanship, the enthusiasm of a noble
nature,—these no practice could educe from the eloquence of Lumley Lord
Vargrave, for he had them not; but bold wit, fluent and vigorous
sentences, effective arrangement of parliamentary logic, readiness of
retort, plausibility of manner, aided by a delivery peculiar for
self-possession and ease, a clear and ringing voice (to the only fault of
which, shrillness without passion, the ear of the audience had grown
accustomed), and a countenance impressive from its courageous
intelligence,—all these had raised the promising speaker into the
matured excellence of a nervous and formidable debater. But precisely as
he rose in the display of his talents, did he awaken envies and enmities
hitherto dormant. And it must be added that, with all his craft and
coldness, Lord Vargrave was often a very dangerous and mischievous
speaker for the interests of his party. His colleagues had often cause
to tremble when he rose: nay, even when the cheers of his own faction
shook the old tapestried walls. A man who has no sympathy with the
public must commit many and fatal indiscretions when the public, as well
as his audience, is to be his judge. Lord Vargrave’s utter incapacity to
comprehend political morality, his contempt for all the objects of social
benevolence, frequently led him into the avowal of doctrines, which, if
they did not startle the men of the world whom he addressed (smoothed
away, as such doctrines were, by speciousness of manner and delivery),
created deep disgust in those even of his own politics who read their
naked exposition in the daily papers. Never did Lord Vargrave utter one
of those generous sentiments which, no matter whether propounded by
Radical or Tory, sink deep into the heart of the people, and do lasting
service to the cause they adorn. But no man defended an abuse, however
glaring, with a more vigorous championship, or hurled defiance upon a
popular demand with a more courageous scorn. In some times, when the
anti-popular principle is strong; such a leader may be useful; but at the
moment of which we treat he was a most equivocal auxiliary. A
considerable proportion of the ministers, headed by the premier himself,
a man of wise views and unimpeachable honour, had learned to view Lord
Vargrave with dislike and distrust. They might have sought to get rid of
him; but he was not one whom slight mortifications could induce to retire
of his own accord, nor was the sarcastic and bold debater a person whose
resentment and opposition could be despised. Lord Vargrave, moreover,
had secured a party of his own,—a party more formidable than himself.
He went largely into society; he was the special favourite of the female
diplomats, whose voices at that time were powerful suffrages, and with
whom, by a thousand links of gallantry and intrigue, the agreeable and
courteous minister formed a close alliance. All that salons could do
for him was done. Added to this, he was personally liked by his royal
master; and the Court gave him their golden opinions; while the poorer,
the corrupter, and the more bigoted portion of the ministry regarded him
with avowed admiration.

In the House of Commons, too, and in the bureaucracy, he had no
inconsiderable strength; for Lumley never contracted the habits of
personal abruptness and discourtesy common to men in power who wish to
keep applicants aloof. He was bland and conciliating to all men of
ranks; his intellect and self-complacency raised him far above the petty
jealousies that great men feel for rising men. Did any tyro earn the
smallest distinction in parliament, no man sought his acquaintance so
eagerly as Lord Vargrave; no man complimented, encouraged, “brought on”
the new aspirants of his party with so hearty a good will.

Such a minister could not fail of having devoted followers among the
able, the ambitious, and the vain. It must also be confessed that Lord
Vargrave neglected no baser and less justifiable means to cement his
power by placing it on the sure rock of self-interest. No jobbing was
too gross for him. He was shamefully corrupt in the disposition of his
patronage; and no rebuffs, no taunts from his official brethren, could
restrain him from urging the claims of any of his creatures upon the
public purse. His followers regarded this charitable selfishness as the
stanchness and zeal of friendship; and the ambition of hundreds was wound
up in the ambition of the unprincipled minister.

But besides the notoriety of his public corruption, Lord Vargrave was
secretly suspected by some of personal dishonesty,—suspected of selling
his State information to stock-jobbers, of having pecuniary interests in
some of the claims he urged with so obstinate a pertinacity. And though
there was not the smallest evidence of such utter abandonment of honour,
though it was probably but a calumnious whisper, yet the mere suspicion
of such practices served to sharpen the aversion of his enemies, and
justify the disgust of his rivals.

In this position now stood Lord Vargrave: supported by interested, but
able and powerful partisans; hated in the country, feared by some of
those with whom he served, despised by others, looked up to by the rest.
It was a situation that less daunted than delighted him; for it seemed to
render necessary and excuse the habits of scheming and manoeuvre which
were so genial to his crafty and plotting temper. Like an ancient Greek,
his spirit loved intrigue for intrigue’s sake. Had it led to no end, it
would still have been sweet to him as a means. He rejoiced to surround
himself with the most complicated webs and meshes; to sit in the centre
of a million plots. He cared not how rash and wild some of them were.
He relied on his own ingenuity, promptitude, and habitual good fortune to
make every spring he handled conducive to the purpose of the
machine—SELF.

His last visit to Lady Vargrave, and his conversation with Evelyn, had
left on his mind much dissatisfaction and fear. In the earlier years of
his intercourse with Evelyn, his good humour, gallantry, and presents had
not failed to attach the child to the agreeable and liberal visitor she
had been taught to regard as a relation. It was only as she grew up to
womanhood, and learned to comprehend the nature of the tie between them,
that she shrank from his familiarity; and then only had he learned to
doubt of the fulfilment of his uncle’s wish. The last visit had
increased this doubt to a painful apprehension. He saw that he was not
loved; he saw that it required great address, and the absence of happier
rivals, to secure to him the hand of Evelyn; and he cursed the duties and
the schemes which necessarily kept him from her side. He had thought of
persuading Lady Vargrave to let her come to London, where he could be
ever at hand; and as the season was now set in, his representations on
this head would appear sensible and just. But then again this was to
incur greater dangers than those he would avoid. London!—a beauty and
an heiress, in her first debut in London! What formidable admirers
would flock around her! Vargrave shuddered to think of the gay,
handsome, well-dressed, seductive young elegans, who might seem, to a
girl of seventeen, suitors far more fascinating than the middle-aged
politician. This was perilous; nor was this all: Lord Vargrave knew that
in London—gaudy, babbling, and remorseless London—all that he could
most wish to conceal from the young lady would be dragged to day. He had
been the lover, not of one, but of a dozen women, for whom he did not
care three straws, but whose favour had served to strengthen him in
society, or whose influence made up for his own want of hereditary
political connections. The manner in which he contrived to shake off
these various Ariadnes, whenever it was advisable, was not the least
striking proof of his diplomatic abilities. He never left them enemies.
According to his own solution of the mystery, he took care never to play
the gallant with Dulcineas under a certain age. “Middle-aged women,” he
was wont to say, “are very little different from middle-aged men; they
see things sensibly, and take things coolly.” Now Evelyn could not be
three weeks, perhaps three days, in London, without learning of one or
the other of these liaisons. What an excuse, if she sought one, to
break with him! Altogether, Lord Vargrave was sorely perplexed, but not
despondent. Evelyn’s fortune was more than ever necessary to him, and
Evelyn he was resolved to obtain since to that fortune she was an
indispensable appendage.

CHAPTER II.

YOU shall be Horace, and Tibullus I.—POPE.

LORD VARGRAVE was disturbed from his revery by the entrance of the Earl
of Saxingham.

“You are welcome!” said Lumley, “welcome!—the very man I wished to see.”

Lord Saxingham, who was scarcely altered since we met with him in the
last series of this work, except that he had grown somewhat paler and
thinner, and that his hair had changed from iron-gray to snow-white,
threw himself in the armchair beside Lumley, and replied,—

“Vargrave, it is really unpleasant, our finding ourselves always thus
controlled by our own partisans. I do not understand this new-fangled
policy, this squaring of measures to please the Opposition, and throwing
sops to that many-headed monster called Public Opinion. I am sure it
will end most mischievously.”

“I am satisfied of it,” returned Lord Vargrave. “All vigour and union
seem to have left us; and if they carry the ——- question against us, I
know not what is to be done.”

“For my part, I shall resign,” said Lord Saxingham, doggedly; “it is the
only alternative left to men of honour.”

“You are wrong; I know another alternative.”

“What is that?”

“Make a Cabinet of our own. Look ye, my dear lord; you been ill-used;
your high character, your long experience, are treated with contempt. It
is an affront to you—the situation you hold. You, Privy Seal!—you
ought to be Premier; ay, and, if you are ruled by me, Premier you shall
be yet.”

Lord Saxingham coloured, and breathed hard.

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