« AnteriorContinuar »
all, what is public life but a burlesque; a thing of lndicrous disappointment; a tragedy, with a farce always at hand to relieve the tedinm and the tinsel; the fall of kingdoms made laughable by the copper lace of the stage wardrobe?"
"Do you object to our duke?"
"Not in the least. He is personally a gallant fellow; and if he wants experience, so must every man at one time or other. His only error, hitherto, has been his condescending to come at all with so small a force under his command. No English army should ever plant its foot upon the Continent with less than fifty thousand men on its muster-roll. The duke's being put at the head of your troops—only a division after all— seems to me the only wise thing that has been done. It was a declaration of the heartiness of your alliance; and I honour your country for the distinctness of the avowal. Your king gives his son, as your country gives her soldiers, and your people give their money. The whole was manly, magnanimous, or, as the highest panegyric, it was English all over."
This language at once put an end to all my reserve. I shook his hand in the spirit of old friendship; and, on our parting, extracted a promise of keeping up our communication on all possible opportunities. We had already separated, when I heard my name called again, and Guiscard returned. "I had forgotten," said he, "to tell you what I was most anxious to say. If I had seen no other prospect for you, I should be the last man to make you discontented with your profession. My only request is, that when you once more tread on English ground, you will seriously consider whether you will continue in the army. If I know you at all, I think that you would not be altogether satisfied with wearing your epaulettes at reviews and parades. And, if I am not entirely mistaken, you will have nothing else for the next dozen years. Your army are moving homewards already. You are now in the secret."
"But is the campaign absolutely coming to an end? Are the hopes of attacking the French so snddenly given up? Is France always to baffle us?" was my vexed question.
"As to the fate of France, you should consult a prophet, not a Prussian engineer—and one terribly tired of his trade besides," was the reply. We parted; but the conversation was not lost upon me.
By midnight I was on my journey. My route lay through the Flemish provinces, which had now recovered all their luxuriance, if not derived additional animation from the activity which every where follows the movements of a successful army. Troops marching to join the general advance frequently and strikingly diversified the scene. Huge trains of the commissariat were continually on the road. The little civic authorities were doubly conscious of the dignity of functions which brought them into contact with soldiership, from the quartermaster up to the general. But the contrast of the tumult which I left behind with the quietness of the scenes around me— the haste, the anxiety, and the restlessness of a huge camp, with the calm of the fields, with the regularity which seemed to govern all the operations of farming life, and with the grave opulence of the old mansions, which seemed to be formed for the natural receptacles of the wealth of Flemish fields— at once refreshed me after the mental fever in which I had tossed so long, and perhaps impressed on me more deeply the parting advice of my friend the philosopher.
But, from the moment when I touched British ground, the whole sleepy tranquillity which gathers over every man in the quietnde of Flanders, where man seems to have followed the same plough from the deluge, had utterly vanished. I was in the midst of a nation in a ferment. The war was the universal topic; party was in full life. From the inn at Dover up to the waitingroom at the Horse-Guards, I heard nothing but politics. The conduct of ourarmy—the absurdity of every thing that had been done, or left undone— the failures of the Allies—the fanaticism of the French— the hopes of popular liberty on one side, and the indignation of established power on the other —came rushing round me in a chaos of discordant conceptions, that for the time bewildered me. How simple was the gossip of the camp to this heterogeneons mass of struggling topics! How straightforward was even the wild haranguing of the Palais Royal to the thousand reports and protests, remonstrances and replications, of the whole ringing and raging public mind of England 1 This was the age of pamphleteering. Every sage who could, or could not, write, flung his pamphlet in the teeth of the party whose existence he conceived to be ruinous to his country, or perhaps prejndicial to his own prospect of a sinecure. The journals printed their columns in gall; the satirists dipped their pens in concentrated acid; the popular haranguers dashed the oil of vitriol of contempt in each other's faces. The confusion, the collision, the uproar, was indescribable.
But my whole experience of public life has told me, that however the popular opinion may be wrong, the public opinion is right; and I felt that the nation was already adverse to the conduct of the campaign. The utmost skill of the cabinet was required to prevent a dangerous reaction. The member of administration with whom my chief intercourse officially existed, was the same manly and kind-natured individual to whom I had formerly been indebted for so much civility; and, as if prond of his own work, his civility now took the form of friendship. Ill news came from abroad; and I expressed my impatience of remainingwith the pen in my hand, when 1 should have worn my sword. To all my suggestions on the subject, the good-humoured answer was, that my Bervices were still necessary at home. At length, on my making a decided request that I should be permitted to return to my regiment, he told me in confidence that the campaign was probably at an end; that the British commander-in-chief was about to return; and that, in fact, the strength of England would bo turned to the naval war. At the close of one of those conversations, fixing his keen grey eye upon me, he said, "Pray, what think yon of Parliament?" My answer was, "That mediocrity was more contemptible there than any where else; while success was more difficult."
"You mean such success as Pitt's: you mean victory. But you must get these Greek and Roman notions otit
of your head. An English House does not want orators. One on s sido is quite enough. They are like the gold plate on a Bideboard; it is well to show that we have such things, for the honour of our establishment | but no one thinks of making use of them at table. Pitt is an exception; he is equal to every thing; an incomparable man of business. Burke, or some other man of metaphor, compared him to the faleon; which, however high it may soar, always follows the prey with its eye along the groitnd, But two Pitts, if nature could be prolific of such magnificent monsters, would absolutely perplex us. What could be more confusing than to have two suns shining at the same time?"
"But is Fox nothing?" I asked.
"A great deal," was the answer. "He is the finest talker, I suppose, in the world. The first of babblers."
"Of babblers!" I involuntarily repeated.
"Yes; for what is babbling but speaking in vain, pouring out endless speculations without a purpose or the hope of a purpose, indulging a remarkably powerful and productive mind with the waste of its own conceptions, pouring out a whole coinago of splendid thoughts with no more expectancy of practical result than if he poured the mint into the Thames? You may rely upon it that such is the opinion of the House, as it will be yours when you get there; and such will be that of posterity, if they shall ever take the trouble to think about any of us."
This conversation was evidently more than accidental; and I gave to it some of my most perplexing hours. I had an original fondness for the life of arms. I was of the age to feel its variety, animation, and ardour. My experience had been fortunate; I had seen nothing but victory, and had been flattered by personal distinction. But then came the reverse of the medal. I remembered the opinion of the most sagacious and penetrating spirit which it had been my lot ever to know; and I felt that the Continent was to be our field of battle no longer. The languor of home service, to one who had seen war in its stateliest shape, and in its most powerful activity, rose before my mind with an inexpressible sense of weariness. On the other hand, supposing that I possessed the faculties forpolitical life, was 1 possessed of the temper, the endurance of toil, the measureless patience, the inexhaustible equanimity, which every night of my public existence would henceforch demand? Why was this heart-wearying struggle to be preferred to the simple and straightforward pursuit of an honourable profession, in which the only weight was the carrying of my sword, and the only secret of distinction possessing an untarnished name?
But I soon made up my mind. The question narrowed itself to this: which was the more active life? The point of honour was no longer the adherence to a profession whose purposes were necessarily changed. Every hour gave additional evidence that the gates of the Continent were closing upon the English soldier. Influence, Impression, publicity, were the prizes of a political career. I saw all other names fade before the great senatorial names of England. I saw men of humble extraction filling the world with their fame. I saw a succession of individuals, who, if their profession had been arms, or if their birth-place had been the Continent, would have lived and died in the routine of obscure service, here rising to the height of national homage, lustres of their generation, and guiding by their opinions the courts of Europe. Whether I should ever take my place among those illustrious names, scarcely entered into my thoughts. But I was determined never to waste my life in conscious indolence. Scarcely knowing what faculties I might possess, I had fully resolved on trying their utmost strength; and grown almost indifferent to the ordinary pursuits of human indulgence, I looked with something of a melancholy yet proud hope, to the enjoyment which was to be found in giving myself up to the solitary and stern toil of living for a great cause, and leaving a name behind me that should not be forgotten.
On that very day the intelligence arrived that the British troops had marched towards the north of Germany; that the royal duke had returned to England; and that the Allies had, by common consent, abandoned the invasion
of France. My habits were always prompt. Before the hour was over in which the gazette appeared, I Waited on my ministerial friend, and expressed my full acquiescence in his proposal.
I pass by the process of getting into Parliament. It was then a simpler matter than it has since become. A treasury borough was then the gate through which all the lending names of the country had entered the legislature, and I merely followed the path of all but the lords of acres.
Every man who will make himself master of an occupation must serve an apprenticeship. Parliament, too, has its seven years' indentures, and the few who have refused the training have seldom been the wiser for their precipitancy. I "bided my time," taking a slight occasional share in debates with whose topics I happened to be well acquainted; and expecting the chances, which, to every one Who employs himself vigorously, are all but certainties. Still I felt that this mere hovering on the outskirts of debate must not last too long, and that nothing was more hazardous to final reputation than to be too slow in attempting to lay its first stone. Yet I felt some difficulty in every great question; and, after bracing my nerves for the onset, I always found my courage fail at the sight of the actual encounter. I felt as a young knight might have felt In some of the tilting-matches of old—master of his charger in the open field, and delighting in the pressure of his armour and the weight of his lance; but when he once rode within the barrier, saw the galleries filled, and the heralds lifting the trumpets to their lips, feeling his blood grow chill, and the light depart from his eyes.
I mentioned my embarrassment to my Scottish friend, and almost expected a remonstrance. To my great surprise and infinite pleasure, lie congratulated me. "You cannot give a better sign," said he. "My only fear of you was, that you would dash into debate at once, like a tumbler jumping from a precipice; and that, like him, all that you would have gained by it would be broken limbs for life. If the fellow had kept to his elack-rope and his stage, he would have been safe enough, and gained some applause besides."
"But what is to be done in the House, without some hazard of the kind?"
"Wrong—quite wrong. A great deal is to be done. Take myself for the example. You see where I am, and yet I never made a speech in my life. From the beginning of my career, I never allowed any one to look for any thing of the kind from me; and the consequCnce was, that by some I was regarded as a much shrewder personage than I ever believed myself to be; and by others was thought to know a great deal more than I ever acquired."
"But will this account for the rapid distinctions of your public life?"
"Perfectly, so far as they have gone. I obtained ministerial confidence on the essential merits of being a safe man—one who made no ambitious attempts to lower the crests of those above me. I escaped the jealousy of those below me by adopting the style which mediocrity assumes by nature. I was thus like the senior subaltern in a marching regiment—I wore the same uniform with the colonel, and went through the same exercise with the ensign. The field-officers knew that I would not tread upon their heels, and every subaltern wished to see my promotion, as a step to his own."
My official duties, the mere entrance into office, occupied me laboriously for a while, and I felt all the habitual difficulties of my noviciate. It had been fully my intention to follow the advice of my experienced friend, and leave the hour which was to call for my exertions in the House to the chances of the time. But that time came more rapidly than 1 had expected. The public mind was fevered, hour by hour; the news from the Continent was more and more startling; the successes of the Republican armies had assumed a shape which our desponding politicians regarded as invincibility, and which our factious ones pronounced to be the ruin of Europe. The cabinet offered only the prospect of a melancholy struggle. But six months before, it had stood, strong as a citadel erected by the national hands, and garrisoned by the
spirit of the empire. It still stood, but it stood dismantled; there were evident breaches in its walls, and the fugitives of Opposition, rallying with the hope of success, advanced again to the storm, headed by their great leader, and sustained by the capricious and fluctuating multitnde. The premier was harassed by the incessant toil of defence—a toil in which he bad scarcely a sharer, and which exposed him to the most remorseless hostility. Yet, if the historian were to choose the moment for his true fame, this was the moment which ought to be chosen. He rose with the severity of the struggle; assanlt seemed to give him new vigour; the attempt to tear the robe of office from his shoulders only gave the nobler display of his intellectual proportions. When I saw him, night after night, standing almost alone, with nothing but disaster in front and timidity in the rear, combating a force such as had never before been arrayed under the banners of Opposition ; the whole scene of magnificent conflict and still grander fortitnde, reminded me of the Homeric war and its warriors.—The champion of the kingdom, standing forth in despite of evil omens thickening round him, of the deepening clond, and the sinister thunders.
I speak of those times, and of the great men of those times, in no invidious contrast with later days. I have so strong a faith in tho infinite ability which freedom gives to a great empire, that I am convinced of our being able, in all its eras, to find the species of public talent essential to its services. I regard the national mind, as the philosopher does the natural soil, always capable of the essential produce, where we give it the due tillage. The great men of the past century have passed away along with it; they were summoned for a day of conflict, and were formed for the conflict; their muscular vigour, the power with which they wielded their weapons, the giant step and the giant hand, were all necessary, and were all shaped and sustained by that necessity. But this day had its close; the leaders of man— like the i' mighty hunters" of an Age, when the land was still overshadowed with the forest, and the harvest was overrun with tho lion and the panther, would naturally give place to a less daring and lofty generation, when the forest had given way to the field, and the lair of the wild beast had become the highway and the bower. But if the evil day should again return, the guardian power of intellect and virtue will again come forth in the human shape, and vindicate the providence that watches over the progress of mankind. I utterly deny the exhaustion of national genins; I even deny its exhaustibility. If the moral vegetation languishes, and the soil is parched for a while, the great source of refreshing and fertility still lies before us—the public mind, in its boundless expansion, and in its unfathomable depth; the intellectual ocean which no plummet has ever sounded, and which no shore has ever circumscribed, lies ready to restore the balance of nature.
But the sense of power itself in the national mind forbids the exhibition of its strength in tranquil times. It is lofty and fastidious; it will not stoop to a contest in which nothing is to be contended for. It is not an actor; and it cannot adopt the figured passion of the actor, rend its robe, and flourish, and obtest heaven against the traitor and the oppressor, to the sound of an orchestra, or in the glitter of stage lamps. The true ability of the empire must scorn all mimic encounter; and what else can be the little struggles of party shut up in the legislature, whose sound scarcely transpires through the walls, whose trinmphs are a tax, and whose oracles are an intrigue? But, when the true day of trial shall come—when an enemy shall be seen hovering on the coasts of the Constitntion—when trumpet answers trumpet, and the "country is proclaimed in danger"— then, and not till then, shall we know the superb resources of our intellectual strength: whatever may have been the prowess of the past, we may see it not merely rivaled but thrown into eclipse by the future; the burnished armour, and massive swords and maces of our old intellectual chivalry, superseded by more manageable and more destructive implements of success ; and the sterner conflict followed by the more consummate trimuph.Yet, when we undervalue the living
VOl. LVII. NO. c'CCI.I.
ability of a nation from its quietnde at the moment, we but adopt the example of every past age in succession. The last "ten years of the last century were preceded bv a period of despair; Chatham's career was run, and the national regrets over his tomb were mingled with sorrows for the extinction of all parliamentary renown!—The day had gone down, and darkness was to cover the skv for ever. But while the prediction was scarcely uttered, the horizon was in a blaze, mighty meteors rushed across it in a thousand courses of eccentric speed and splendour; and a penod of intellectual display began, which at once dazzled and delighted mankind. Anne's Augustan age of war, negotiation, and eloquence, was once pronounced to be, like the Augustan age of Rome, incapable of nvalship by posterity; but our own times have seen a bolder war, a broader peace, and a richer development of science, invention, and eloquence. For fifty years, England was pronounced to have worn herself out by the prolific brilliancy of the half century before; like a precocious infant, to have anticipated her powers, and ensured their premature decay; like the Ba-otians, to have had her Pindaric period, and thenceforward to have paid for its raptures and renown by perpetual darkness; or like the Israelites in Egypt, to be condemned to drndgery for life, sunk into an intellectual slave-caste'; —when in the midst of the scoffing, or the sorrow, snddenly arrived a new epoch, a new summons to the national genins, :i time of lofty interpositions, " thunderings in the air, and lightning running along the ground," an era of the marvellous things of mind; the chains fell off the hands, and the generation went forth, with a new sense of superiority, into new scenes of knowledge, discovery, and empire.
Whether it was my good or ill fortune to make my first effort in the midst of the men whose names have immortalized their day, I shall not venture to decide. But my resolve had been firmly taken—not to remain in Parliament unless I discovered in myself faculties fit for its service. I was determined not to play the umte if I had the means of uttering a voice.