Story type: Essay
The stimulus subsided. The paroxysms ended in prostration. Some took refuge in melancholy, and their eminent chief alternated between a menace and a sigh. As I sat opposite the Treasury bench, the Ministers reminded me of those marine landscapes not unusual on the coasts of South America. You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes; not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest; but the situation is still dangerous: there are occasional earthquakes, and ever and anon the dark rumblings of the sea.
—Speech at Manchester
Since Disraeli was born a Jew, he was received into the Jewish Church with Jewish rites. But Judaism, standing in the way of his ambition, and his parents’ ambition for him, the religion of his fathers was renounced and he became, in name, a Christian. Yet to the last his heart was with his people, and the glory of his race was his secret pride.
The fine irony of affiliating with a people who worship a Jew as their Savior, but who have legislated against, and despised the Jew–this attracted Disraeli. With them he bowed the knee in an adoration they did not feel, and while his lips said the litany, his heart repeated Ben Ezra’s prayer. In temperament he belonged with the double-dealing East. He intuitively knew the law of jiu jitsu, best exemplified by the Japanese, and won often by yielding. He was bold, but not too bold.
Israel Zangwill, shrewdest, keenest and kindliest of Jews–with the tragedy of his race pictured on his furrowed face, a face like an ancient weather-worn statue on whose countenance grief has petrified–has summed up the character of Disraeli as no other man ever has or can. I will not rob the reader by quoting from “The Primrose Sphinx”–that gem of letters must ever stand together without subtraction of a word. It belongs to the realm of the lapidary, and its facets can not be transferred. Yet when Mr. Zangwill refers to the Mephistophelian curl of Lord Beaconsfield’s lip, the word is used advisedly. No character in history so stands for the legendary Mephisto as does this man. The Satan of the Book of Job, jaunty, daring, joking with his Maker, is the Mephisto of Goethe and all the other playwriters who, have used the character. Mephisto is so much above the ordinary man in sense of humor–which is merely the right estimate of values–so sweeping in intellect, that Milton pictures him as a dispossessed god, the only rival of Deity.
Disraeli, not satisfied with playing the part of Mephisto and tempting men to their ruin, but thirsting for a wider experience, turns Faustus himself and sells his soul for a price. He knows that everything in life is sold–nothing is given gratis–we pay for knowledge with tears; for love with pain; for life with death. He haggles and barters with Fate, and pays the penalty because he must.
He alternately affronts and cajoles his enemies; takes all that the world has to give; knows every pleasure; wins every prize; makes love to the daughters of men (without loving them); and winning the one he selects, secretly thanks Jehovah, God of his fathers, that he leaves no offspring–because the woman fit for his mate and equal to mothering his children does not exist.
The sublimity of his egotism stands unrivaled. It is so great that it is admirable. We lift our hats to this man. Napoleon gained the field without prejudice; but this man enters the list with hate and prejudice arrayed against him. He plays the pawns of chance with literature, religion, politics, and moves the queen so as to checkmate all adversaries. He flouts love, but to show the world that he yet knows the ideal, he occasionally pictures truth and trusting affection in his speeches and books. This entire game of life is to him only a diversion.
They may jeer him down in the House of Commons, but his patience is unruffled. He says, “Very well, I will wait.” Now and again he smiles that wondrous, contagious smile, showing his white teeth and the depth of his dark, burning eyes.
He knows his power. He revels in the wit he never expresses; he glories in this bright blade of the intellect that is never fully unsheathed.
They think he is interested in English politics–pish! Only world problems really interest him, and those that lie behind mean as much to him as those that are to come. He is one with eternity, and the vanquished glory of Rome, the marble beauty of Athens, the Assyrian Sphinx, the flight from Egypt under the leadership of one who had killed his man–yet had talked with God face to face–these and the dim uncertainty of the unseen, are the things that interest him. He is a dreamer of the Ghetto.
* * * * *
There was no taint of mixed blood in the veins of Benjamin Disraeli. He traced his ancestry in a record that looks like a chapter from the Book of Numbers. His forebears had known every persecution, every contumely, slight and disgrace. Driven from Spain by the Inquisition, barely escaping with life, when Jewish blood actually fertilized the fields about Granada, his direct ancestor became one of the builders of Venice. The Jews practically controlled the trade of the world in the sun-kissed days of prosperity, when Venice produced the books and the art of Christendom.
To trace an ancestry back to those who enthroned Venice on her hundred isles was surely something of which to be proud; and into the blood of Benjamin Disraeli went a dash of the gleam and glory and glamour of Venice–the Venice of the Doges.
This man’s grandfather came to England with a goodly fortune, which he managed to increase as the years went by. He had one son, Isaac, who nearly broke his parents’ heart in that he not only showed no aptitude for business, but actually wrote poems wherein commerce was held up to ridicule. The tendency of the artistic nature to speak with disdain of the “mere money-grabber,” and the habit of the “money-grabber” to refer patronizingly to the helpless, theoretical and dreamy artist, is well known. Isaac Disraeli was an artist in feeling; he must have been a reincarnation of one of those bookmakers of Venice who touched hands with Titian and Giorgione and helped to invest wisely the moneys the merchants of the Rialto made. Never a Gratiano had a greater contempt for a merchant than he. Just to get him out of the way, his parents packed Isaac off to Europe, where he acquired several languages, and some other things, with that ease which the Jew always manifests. He dallied in art, pecked at books, and made the acquaintance of many literary men.
When his father died and left him a goodly fortune, he had the sense to turn the entire management of the estate over to his wife, a woman with a thorough business instinct, while he busied himself with his books.
Benjamin was the second child of these parents. He had a sister older than himself, and two brothers younger. Those philosophers who claim that spirits have their own individuality in the unseen world, and the accident of birth really does not constitute a kinship between brothers and sisters, will find here something that looks like proof. Benjamin Disraeli bore no resemblance in mental characteristics to his sister or brothers; he did, however, possess the mental virtues of both father and mother, multiplied by ten.
When twelve years of age he exhibited that intense disposition for mastery which was through life his distinguishing trait. The Jew does not outrank the Gentile in strength, but the average Jew surely does have the faculty of concentration which the average Gentile does not possess. And that is what constitutes strength–the ability to focus the mind on one thing and compass it: to concentrate is power.
When Ben was sent to the Unitarian school at Walthamstow, aged fifteen, it was his first taste of school life. Up to this time his father had been his tutor. Now he found himself cast into that den of wild animals–an English school for boys. His Jewish name and features and his dandy ways and attire made him the instant butt of the playground. Ben very patiently surveyed his tormentors, waited to pick his man, and then challenged the biggest boy in the school to single combat. The exasperating way in which he coolly went about the business set his adversary’s teeth chattering before the call of “time.” The result of the fight was that, even if “Dizzy” was not thoroughly respected from that day forth, no one ever called, “Old clo’! Old clo’!” within his hearing. Of course it was not generally advertised that the lad had been taking boxing lessons from “Coster Joe” for three years, with the villainies of a boys’ school in view. In fact, boxing was this young man’s diversion, and the Coster on several occasions expressed great regret that writing and politics had robbed the ring of one who showed promise of being the cleverest welter-weight of his time.
The main facts in both “Vivian Gray” and “Contarini Fleming” are autobiographical. Like Byron, upon whom Disraeli fed, the author never got far away from himself.
It was not long before the intense personality of young Disraeli made itself felt throughout the Walthamstow school. The young man smiled at the pedant’s idolatry of facts, and seized the vital point in every lesson. He felt himself the superior of every one in the establishment, master included–and he was.
Before a year he split the school into two factions–those who favored Ben Disraeli, and those who were opposed to him. The master cast his vote with the latter class, and the result was that Ben withdrew, thus saving the authorities the trouble of expelling him. His leave-taking was made melodramatic with a speech to the boys, wherein impertinent allusions were made concerning all schoolmasters, and the master of Walthamstow in particular.
And thus ended the school life of Benjamin Disraeli, the year at Walthamstow being his first and last experience.
However, Ben was not indifferent to study; he felt sure that there was a great career before him, and he knew that knowledge was necessary to success. With his father’s help he laid out a course of work that kept him at his tasks ten hours a day. His father was a literary man of acknowledged worth, and mingled in the best artistic society of London. Into this society Benjamin was introduced, meeting all his father’s acquaintances on an absolute equality. The young man at eighteen was totally unabashed in any company; he gave his opinion unasked, criticized his elders, flashed his wit upon the guests and was looked upon with fear, amusement or admiration, as the case might be.
Froude says of him, “The stripling was the same person as the statesman at seventy, with this difference only, that the affectation which was natural in the boy was itself affected in the matured politician, whom it served well for a mask, or as a suit of impenetrable armor.”
* * * * *
That literature is the child of parents is true. That is to say, it takes two to produce a book. Of course there are imitation books, sort o’ wax figures that look like books, made through habit by those that have been many years upon the turf, and who work automatically; but every real, live, throbbing, pulsing book was written by a man with a woman at his elbow, or vice versa.
When twenty-one years of age Benjamin Disraeli produced “Vivian Gray.” The woman in the case was Mrs. Austen, wife of a prosperous London solicitor. This lady was handsome, a brilliant talker, a fine musician and an amateur artist of no mean ability. She was much older than Disraeli–she must have been in order to comprehend that the young man’s frivolity was pretense, and his foppery affectation. A girl of his own age, whose heart-depths had not been sounded by experience, would have fallen in love with the foppery (or else despised it–which is often the same thing); but Mrs. Austen, mature in years, with a decade of London “seasons” behind her, having met every possible kind of man Europe had to offer, discovered that the world did not know Ben Disraeli at all. She saw that the youth did not reveal his true self, and that instead of courting society for its own sake he had a supreme contempt for it. She intuitively knew that he was seething in discontent, and with prophetic vision she knew that his restless power and his ambition would yet make him a marked figure in the world of letters or politics, or both.
For love as a passion, or supreme sentiment, ruling one’s life, Disraeli had no sympathy. He shunned love for fear it might bind him hand and foot. Love not only is blind, but love blinds its votary, and Disraeli, knowing this, fled for freedom when the trail grew warm. A man madly in love is led, subdued–imagine Mephisto captured, crying it out on his knees with his head in a woman’s lap!
But Mrs. Austen was happily married, the mother of a family, and occupied a position high in London society.
Marriage with her was out of the question, and scandal and indiscretion equally so–Ben Disraeli felt safe with Mrs. Austen. With her he put off his domino and grew simple and confidential.
And so the lady, doubtless a bit flattered–for she was a woman–set herself to push on the hazard of new fortunes. She encouraged him to write his novel of “Vivian Gray”–discussed every phase of it, read chapter after chapter as they were produced, and by her gentle encouragement and warm sympathy fired the mind of the young man to the point of production.
The book is absurd in plot, and like most first books, flashy and overdrawn. And yet there is a deal of power in it, and the thinly veiled characters were speedily pointed out as living personages. Literary London went agog, and Mrs. Austen fanned the flame by inviting “the set” to her drawing-room to hear the great author read from his amusing work. The best feature of the book, and probably the saving feature, is that the central figure in the plot is Disraeli, himself, and upon his own head the author plays his shafts of wit and ridicule. The impertinence and impudence which he himself manifested were parodied, caricatured and played upon, to the great delight of the uninitiated rabble, who gave themselves much credit for having made a discovery.
The man who scorns, scoffs, gibes and jeers other men, and at the same time is willing to drop his guard and laugh at himself, is not a bad man. Very, very seldom is found a man under thirty who does not take himself and all his wit seriously. But Disraeli, the lawyer’s clerk, at twenty was wise and subtle beyond all men in London Town. Mrs. Austen must have been wise, too, for had she been like most other good women she would have wanted her protege admired, and have rebelled in tears at the thought of placing him in a position where society would serve him up for tittle-tattle. Small men can be laughed down, but great ones, never.
A little American testimony as to the appearance of Disraeli in his manhood may not here be amiss. Says N.P. Willis: “He was sitting in a window looking on Hyde Park, the last rays of sunlight reflected from the gorgeous gold flowers of a splendidly embroidered waistcoat. Patent-leather pumps, a white stick with a black cord and tassel, and a quantity of chains about his neck and pockets, served to make him a conspicuous object. He has one of the most remarkable faces I ever saw. He is lividly pale, and but for the energy of his action and strength of his lungs would seem to be a victim of consumption. His eye is black as Erebus, and has the most mocking, lying-in-wait sort of expression conceivable. His mouth is alive with a kind of working and impatient nervousness, and when he has burst forth, as he does constantly, with a particularly successful cataract of expression, it assumes a curl of triumphant scorn that would be worthy of Mephistopheles. His hair is as extraordinary as his taste in waistcoats. A thick, heavy mass of jet-black ringlets falls on his left cheek almost to his collarless stock, which on the right temple is parted and put away with the smooth carefulness of a girl. The conversation turned on Beckford. I might as well attempt to gather up the foam of the sea as to convey an idea of the extraordinary language in which he clothed his description. He talked like a racehorse approaching the winning-post, every muscle in action.”
* * * * *
Disraeli, like Byron, awoke one morning and found himself famous. And like Byron, he was yet a stripling. Pitt was Prime Minister at twenty-five. Genius has its example, and Disraeli worshiped alternately at the shrines of Byron and Pitt. The daring intellect and haughty indifference of Byron, and the compelling power of Pitt–he saw no reason why he should not unite these qualities within himself. He had been grubbing in a lawyer’s office, and had revealed decided ability in a business way, but novel-writing in office-hours was not appreciated by his employer–Ben was told so, and this gave him an opportunity to resign. He had set his heart on a political career–he thirsted for power–and no doubt Mrs. Austen encouraged him in this. To push a man to the front, and thus win a vicarious triumph, has been a source of great joy to more than one ambitious woman. To get on in politics, Disraeli must enter the House of Commons. Even now, with the help of the Austens, and his father’s purse, a pocket borough might be secured, but it was not enough–he must enter with eclat.
A year of travel was advised–fame grows best where the man is not too much in evidence; there is virtue in obscurity. Disraeli decided to go down through Europe, traveling over the same route that Byron had taken, write another book that would secure him some more necessary notoriety, and then stand for a seat in the House of Commons. Once within the sacred pale, he believed his knowledge of business, his ability to express himself as a writer or speaker, and the magic of his presence would make the rest easy.
There was no dumb luck in the matter–neither father nor son believed in chance; they fixed their faith on cause and effect.
And so Ben went abroad before London society grew aweary of him.
His stay was purposely prolonged; and news of his progress from time to time filled the public prints. He carried letters of introduction to every one and moved in a sort of sublime pageant as he traveled.
When he returned, wearing the costume of the East, he was greeted by society as a prince. His novel, “Contarini Fleming,” was published with great acclaim, and interest in “Vivian Gray” was revived by a special edition deluxe. “Contarini” was compared to “Childe Harold,” and pictures of Disraeli, with hair curling to his shoulders, were displayed in shop-windows by the side of pictures of Byron.
Disraeli was the lion of the drawing-rooms. When it was known he was to be in a certain place crowds gathered to get a glimpse of his handsome face, and to listen to his wit.
He introduced several of his Eastern accomplishments, one of which was the hookah. “Beware of tobacco, my boy,” said an old colonel to him one day; “women do not like it; it has ruined more charming liaisons than anything else I know!”
“Then you must consider smoking a highly moral accomplishment,” was the reply. The colonel had wrongly guessed the object of Disraeli’s ambition.
He became acquainted with Tom Moore, Count d’Orsay, and Lady Morgan; Lady Blessington welcomed him at Kensington; Bulwer-Lytton introduced him to Mrs. Wyndham Lewis–wife of the member from Maidstone–aged forty; and he was, say, twenty-five. They tried conclusions in repartee, sparred for points, and amused the company by hot arguments and wordy pyrotechnics. When they found themselves alone in the conservatory, after a little stroll, they shook hands, and the gentleman said, “What fools these mortals be!” “True,” replied the lady; “true, and you and I are mortals.” And so Disraeli found another woman who correctly gauged him. They liked each other first-rate. At last a vacant borough was found and arrangements made for the young man to stand as a candidate for the House of Commons. The campaign was entered upon with great vigor. Disraeli quite outdid himself in speech-making and waistcoats. The election took place–and he was defeated.
* * * * *
With Disraeli defeat meant merely a transient episode, not a conclusion. On the second venture he was elected, and one sunshiny day found himself duly sworn in as a member of the House of Commons, with a seat just back of Peel’s.
There is a tradition in Parliament, adopted also in the United States Senate, that silence is quite becoming to a member during his first session. Disraeli had a motto to the effect that it is better to be impudent than servile, and in order to teach Parliament that in the presence of personality all rules are waived, he very shortly indulged him in an exceeding spread-eagle speech. But he had not spoken five minutes before the members began to laugh. Catcalls, hisses and mad tumult reigned. The young man in the flaming waistcoat let loose all his oratorical artillery, and the result was bravos and left-handed applause that smothered his batteries. Again and again he tried to proceed, but his voice was lost in the Clover-Club fusillade. The Chair was powerless. At last the speaker saw an opening and roared above the din, “I will now sit down, but you shall yet listen to me!”
Opinions were divided as to whether the House had squelched the Israelitish fop, or whether the fop had tantalized the House into unseemliness. The young man needed snubbing, no doubt, but the lesson had been given so brutally that sympathy was with the snubbed. The original intent was to abash him, so he would break down; but this not succeeding, he had simply been clubbed into silence.
Then when Disraeli refused to accept condolences–merely waiving the whole affair–and a few days after arose to make some trivial motion, just as though nothing had happened, he made friends.
Any man who shows himself to be strong has friends–people wish to attach themselves to such a one. Disraeli showed himself strong in that he held no resentment, and indulged in no recrimination on account of the treatment he had received. A weak man would have done one of these things: resigned his seat, demanded an apology from the House, or refused to let his voice again be heard. Disraeli did neither–he continued to speak on various occasions, and expressed himself so courteously, so modestly, so becomingly, that the members listened in awe and curiosity. Then soon it was discovered that beneath the mild and gentle ripple of his speech ran a deep current of earnest truth, tinged with subtle wit. When he spoke, the loungers came in from the cloakrooms, fearing to miss something that was worth while.
The House of Commons experience taught Disraeli one great truth, and that was this: the most effective oratory is not bombastic. Among educated people (or illiterate) the quiet, deliberate and subdued manner is best. Reserve is a very necessary element in effective speaking. It is soul-weight that counts, not mere words, words, words. The extreme deliberation and compelling quality of quiet self-possession in Disraeli’s style dated, according to Gladstone, from the day that Parliament tried to laugh him down. After that if any one wanted to hear him they had to come to him, and he took good care that those who did come did not go away empty. He never explained the evident, illustrated the obvious, nor expatiated on the irrelevant.
However, the motto, “Impudence rather than servility,” was not discarded. Instead of a dashing style he developed a slow, subtle, scathing quality that was quite lost on all, save those who gave themselves to close listening.
And the House listened, for when Disraeli went after an antagonist he chose an antlered stag. If little men, fiercely effervescent and childishly inconsequential, attempted to reply to him or sought to engage him in debate, he simply answered them with silence, or that tantalizing smile.
O’Connell and Disraeli, although unlike, had much in common and should have been fast friends. Surely the age and distinguished record of O’Connell must have commanded Disraeli’s respect, but we know how they grappled in wordy warfare. Disraeli called the Irishman an incendiary, and O’Connell, who was a past master in abuse, replied in a speech wherein he exhausted the Billingsgate lexicon. He wound up by a reference to the ancestry of his opponent, and a suggestion that “this renegade Jew is descended from the impenitent thief, whose name was doubtless Disraeli.” It was a home-thrust–a picture so exaggerated and overdrawn that all England laughed. The very extravagance of the simile should have saved the allusion from resentment; but it touched Disraeli in his most sensitive spot–his pride of birth.
He straightway challenged his traducer. O’Connell had killed a man in a duel years before, and then vowed he would never again engage in mortal combat.
Disraeli intimated that he would fight O’Connell’s son, Morgan, if preferred, a man of his own age.
Morgan replied that his father insulted so many men he could not set the precedent of fighting them all, or standing sponsor for an indiscreet parent. But with genuine Irish spirit he suggested that if the son of Abraham was intent on fight and could not be persuaded to be sensible, why, the matter could probably be arranged.
Happily, about this time, police officers invaded the apartments of Disraeli and arrested him on a bench-warrant. He was bound over, to his great relief, in the sum of five hundred pounds to keep the peace.
O’Connell never took the matter very seriously, and referred soon after in a speech to “my excellent, though slightly bellicose friend, child of an honored race.”
Disraeli did not take up politics to make money–the man who does that may win in his desires, but his career is short. Nothing but honesty really succeeds. Disraeli knew this, and in his record there is no taint. But the income of a member of the House of Commons affords no opportunity for display. Disraeli’s books brought him in only small sums, and his father’s moderate fortune had been sadly drawn upon. He was well past thirty, and was not making head, simply because he was cramped for funds. To rise in politics you must have an establishment; you must entertain and reach out and bring those you wish to influence within your scope. A third floor back, in an ebb-tide street, will not do. Like Agassiz, Disraeli had no time to make money–it was a sad plight. But this was a man of destiny, and to use the language of Augustine Birrell, “Wyndam Lewis at this time accommodatingly died.” Mrs. Wyndam Lewis had been the firm friend and helper of Disraeli for many years, and although a small matter of fifteen years separated them as to ages, yet their hearts beat as one.
Scarce a twelvemonth had gone before the widow and Disraeli were married. They disappeared from London for some months, journeying on the Continent. When they returned all the old scores in way of unpaid bills against Disraeli were paid, and he was master of an establishment.
Disraeli was thirty-five, his wife was fifty, but it was a happy mating. They thought alike, and their ambitions were the same. Disraeli treated his wife with all the courtly grace and deference in which he was an adept, and her princely fortune was absolutely his. “There was much cause for gratitude on both sides,” said O’Connell. And there is no doubt that Disraeli’s wife proved the firmest friend he ever had. For many years she was his sole confidante and best adviser. She attended him everywhere and relieved him of many burdens. That true incident of her fingers being crushed by the careless slamming of the carriage-door, and her hiding the bleeding members in her muff, and attending her husband to the House of Commons, where he was to speak, refusing to disturb him by her pain–this symbols the moral quality of the woman. She was the fit mate of a great man, and it is pleasant to know that she was honored and appreciated.
* * * * *
To tell the story of Disraeli’s thirty years in Parliament would be to write the political history of the time. He was in the front of every fight; he expressed himself on every subject; he crossed swords with the strongest men of his age. That he had no great and overpowering convictions on any subject is fully admitted now, even by his most ardent admirers–it was always a question of policy; that is to say, he was a politician. He gave a point here and there when he had to, and when he did, always managed to do it gracefully. When he ambled over from one party to another he affected a fine wrath and gave excellent reasons.
Three times he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and twice was he Prime Minister, and for a time actual Dictator. But he took good care not to exercise his power too severely. When his word was supreme, the safety of the nation lay, as it always does, in a strong opposition.
In one notable instance was Disraeli wrong in his prophecies–he declared again and again that Free Trade meant commercial bankruptcy. Yet Free Trade came about, and the fires were started in ten thousand factories, and such prosperity came to England as she had never known before.
Political economy as a science was a constant butt for his wit, and in physical science he was dense to a point where his ignorance calls for pity. He believed in the literal Mosaic account of creation, and said in his paradoxical way on one occasion, that in belief he was not only a Christian, but a Jew. And this in spite of his most famous mot: “All sensible men are of one religion.”
“And what is that?”
“Sensible men never tell.”
Had Disraeli been truly sensible he would not have attempted to hold Charles Darwin up to ridicule, by declaring in a speech at Oxford that “it is a choice between apes and angels.” He had neither the ability, patience, nor inclination to read the “Origin of Species,” and yet was so absurd as to answer it.
In his novels of “Coningsby,” “Sybil” and “Tancred,” he argues with great skill and adroit sophistry that a landed aristocracy is necessary to a progressive civilization. “The common people need an example of refinement in way of manners, art and intellect. Some one must take the lead, and reveal the possibility of life in leisurely and luxurious living.” And this example of beauty, gentleness and excellence was to come from the landed gentry of England–ye gods! Was it possible that this man believed in the necessity of the gentry as a virtuous example? Or did he merely view the fact that the aristocracy were there in actual possession, and as they could not be evicted, why then the next best thing was to cajole, flatter and discreetly advise them? Who shall say what this man believed!
Sensible men never tell.
But this we know, this man had no vice but ambition. He conformed pretty closely to England’s ideals, and his thirst for power never caused him to take the chances of a Waterloo. His novels show a close acquaintanceship with the ways of society, and he knew the human heart as few men ever do. The degradation of the average toiler in Great Britain, the infamy of the policy extended toward Ireland, and the cruelty of imperialism–all these he knew, for his books reveal it; but he was powerless as a leader to stem the current of tendency. He acquiesced where he deemed action futile.
“Lothair” is his best novel, for in it he gets furthest away from himself. It reveals a cleverness that is admirable, and this same brilliancy and shifty play of intellect are found in “Endymion,” written in his seventy-fifth year. Whether these novels can ever take their place among the books that endure is a question that is growing more easy to answer each succeeding year. They owed their popularity more to their flippant cleverness than to their insight, and their vogue was due, to a great extent, to the veiled personalities that interline their pages.
That Disraeli did not carry out all the plans and reforms he attempted, need not be set down to his discredit. It is fortunate he did not succeed better than he did. He, however, safely piloted the great ship in the direction the passengers desired to go; and his own personal ambition was reached when he, a Jew at heart–member of a despised race–had made himself master of the fleets, armies and treasury of the proudest nation the world has ever known.
* * * * *
Bound into the life of Disraeli is a peculiar incident in the romantic friendship that existed between him and Mrs. Willyums of Torquay, Cornwall. About the year Eighteen Hundred Forty-nine, Disraeli began to receive letters from an unknown admirer, who expressed a great desire for an interview on “a most important business.” All public men, especially if they have the brilliant mental qualities of Disraeli, receive such letters. The sensitive neurotic female who is ill-appreciated in her own home and whose soul yearns for a “higher companionship” is numerous. Disraeli’s secretary used to take care of such letters with a gentle explanation that the Chief was out of town, but upon his return, etc., etc., and that was the last of it. But this Torquay correspondent was insistent, and finally a letter came from her saying she had come to London on purpose to meet her lord and master, and she would await him at a seat just east of the fountain in Crystal Palace at a certain hour. Disraeli read the missive with impatience–the idea of his meeting an unknown woman in this fishmonger manner at a hurdy-gurdy show! He tossed the letter into the fire. The next day another letter came, expressing much regret that he had not kept the appointment, but saying she would await him at the same place the following day, and begging him, as the matter was very urgent, not to fail her.
Disraeli smiled and showed the letter to his wife. She advised him to go. When his wife said he had better do a thing he usually did it; and so he ordered his carriage and went to the hurdy-gurdy show to meet the impressionable female of unknown age and condition at the seat just east of the fountain. It was a silly thing for the leading member of Parliament to do–to make an assignation in a public place with a fool-woman–all London might be laughing at him tomorrow! He was on the point of turning back.
But he reached the fountain and there was his destiny awaiting him–a little woman in widow’s black. She lifted her veil and showed a face wrinkled and old, but kindly. She was agitated–she really did not expect him–and the great man gave a great sigh of relief when he saw that no flashily dressed creature had entrapped him. Even if people stared at him sitting there it made no difference. In pity he shook hands with the little old woman, sat down beside her, calmed her agitation, spoke of Cornwall and the weather, and inquired what he could do for her. A rambling talk about nothing followed, and Disraeli was sure it was just a mild case of lunacy.
He arose to go, and the woman gave him an envelope, saying she had written out her case and begged him to read the letter when he had time. The man was preoccupied, his mind on great affairs of state–he simply crushed the letter into the side-pocket of his overcoat, bade the woman a dignified good-morning, and turned away.
It was a month before he found the letter all crumpled and soiled there where he had placed it. He really had forgotten where it came from. The envelope was opened and out dropped a Bank of England note for one thousand pounds. This note was to pay for certain legal advice. The advice wanted was of a trivial nature, and Disraeli, always conscientious in money matters, hastened to return the money, in person, and give the advice gratis.
But the lady had had the interview–two of them–and this was all she wanted. Letters followed, and this developed into a daily correspondence, wherein the old lady revealed the story of her passion–a passion as delicate, earnest and all-devouring as ever a girl of twenty knew. Insane, you say? Well, ah–yes, doubtless. But then, love is illusion; perhaps life is illusion, a very beautiful rainbow, and why old folks should not be allowed to chase it, or allow sweet emotion to gurgle gleefully under their lee, a bit, as well as young folks, I do not know. Then, really, is love simply a physical manifestation and do spirits grow old? If so, where is our belief in the immortality of the soul?
Mrs. Willyums was childless, had long been a widow, was rich, and her heart had been in the grave until she began to trace the record of Disraeli. She was a recluse: read, studied, fed on Disraeli–loved him. After several years of dreaming and planning she had actually bagged the game. She was a woman of education and ideas. Her letters were interesting–and Disraeli’s letters to her, now published, reveal the history of his daily life as he never told it to another. At her death the bulk of Mrs. Willyum’s fortune went by will to Disraeli.
But Mrs. Disraeli was not jealous of this affection. Why should a woman of sixty be jealous of another woman the same age? They pooled their love and grew rich together in recounting it. Presents were going backward and forward all the time between Disraeli’s country home and Torquay. Mrs. Willyums next came to live at Hughenden. There she died, and there she sleeps, side by side, as was her wish, with Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Privy Seal, Earl Beaconsfield of Beaconsfield, Viscount Hughenden of Hughenden. And the reason the Ex-Premier was not buried in Westminster Abbey was because he had promised these two women that even death should not separate them from him. So there under the spreading elms, in this out-of-the-way country place, they rest–these three, side by side, and the sighing breeze tells and tells again to the twittering birds in the branches, of this triple love, strange as fate, strong as destiny, warm as life, pure as snow, and unselfish as the kiss of the summer sun.
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