Benjamin Disraeli: Sir Ferdinand Armine

AT length arose, in the person of the last Sir Ferdinand Armine, one of those extraordinary and rarely gifted beings who require only an opportunity to influence the fortunes of their nation, and to figure as a Cæsar or an Alcibiades. Beautiful, brilliant, and ambitious, the young and restless Armine quitted, in his eighteenth year, the house of his fathers, and his stepdame of a country, and entered the Imperial service. His blood and creed gained him a flattering reception; his skill and valour soon made him distinguished. The world rang with stories of his romantic bravery, his gallantries, his eccentric manners, and his political intrigues, for he nearly contrived to be elected King of Poland.

Whether it were disgust at being foiled in this high object by the influence of Austria, or whether, as was much whispered at the time, he had dared to urge his insolent and unsuccessful suit on a still more delicate subject to the Empress Queen herself, certain it is that Sir Ferdinand suddenly quitted the Imperial service, and appeared at Constantinople in person. The man whom a point of honour prevented from becoming a Protestant in his native country had no scruples about his profession of faith at Stamboul: certain it is that the English baronet soon rose high in the favour of the Sultan, assumed the Turkish dress, conformed to the Turkish customs, and finally, led against Austria a division of the Turkish army.

Having gratified his pique by defeating the Imperial forces in a sanguinary engagement, and obtaining a favourable peace for the Porte, Sir Ferdinand Armine doffed his turban, and suddenly reappeared in his native country. After the sketch we have given of the last ten years of his life, it is unnecessary to observe that Sir Ferdinand Armine immediately became what is called fashionable; and, as he was now in Protestant England, the empire of fashion was the only one in which the young Catholic could distinguish himself. Let us then charitably set down to the score of his political disabilities the fantastic dissipation and the frantic prodigality in which the liveliness of his imagination and the energy of his soul exhausted themselves.

After three startling years he married the Lady Barbara Ratcliffe, whose previous divorce from her husband, the Earl of Faulconville, Sir Ferdinand had occasioned. He was, however, separated from his lady during the first year of their more hallowed union, and, retiring to Rome, Sir Ferdinand became apparently devout. At the end of a year he offered to transfer the whole of his property to the Church, provided the Pope would allow him an annuity and make him a cardinal. His Holiness not deeming it fit to consent to the proposition, Sir Ferdinand quitted his capital in a huff, and, returning to England, laid claim to the peerages of Tewkesbury and Armine. Although assured of failing in these claims, and himself perhaps as certain of ill success as his lawyers, Sir Ferdinand nevertheless expended upwards of 60,000L. in their promotion, and was amply repaid for the expenditure in the gratification of his vanity by keeping his name before the public. He was never content except when he was astonishing mankind; and while he was apparently exerting all his efforts to become a King of Poland, a Roman cardinal, or an English peer, the crown, the coronet, and the scarlet hat were in truth ever secondary points with him, compared to the sensation throughout Europe which the effort was contrived and calculated to ensure.

On his second return to his native country Sir Ferdinand had not re-entered society. For such a man, society, with all its superficial excitement, and all the shadowy variety with which it attempts to cloud the essential monotony of its nature, was intolerably dull and commonplace. Sir Ferdinand, on the contrary, shut himself up in Armine, having previously announced to the world that he was going to write his memoirs. This history, the construction of a castle, and the prosecution of his claims before the House of Lords, apparently occupied his time to his satisfaction, for he remained quiet for several years, until, on the breaking out of the French Revolution, he hastened to Paris, became a member of the Jacobin Club, and of the National Convention. The name of Citizen Armine appears among the regicides. Perhaps in this vote he avenged the loss of the crown of Poland, and the still more mortifying repulse he may have received from the mother of Marie Antoinette.

After the execution of the royal victims, however, it was discovered that Citizen Armine had made them an offer to save their lives and raise an insurrection in La Vendue, provided he was made Lieutenant-general of the kingdom. At his trial, which, from the nature of the accusation and the character of the accused, occasioned to his gratification a great sensation, he made no effort to defend himself, but seemed to glory in the chivalric crime. He was hurried to the guillotine, and met his fate with the greatest composure, assuring the public with a mysterious air, that had he lived four-and-twenty hours longer everything would have been arranged, and the troubles which he foresaw impending for Europe prevented.

So successfully had Armine played his part, that his mysterious and doubtful career occasioned a controversy, from which only the appearance of Napoleon distracted universal attention, and which, indeed, only wholly ceased within these few years. What were his intentions? Was he or was he not a sincere Jacobin? If he made the offer to the royal family, why did he vote for their death? Was he resolved, at all events, to be at the head of one of the parties? A middle course would not suit such a man; and so on. Interminable were the queries and their solutions, the pamphlets and the memoirs, which the conduct of this vain man occasioned, and which must assuredly have appeased his manes.

Recently it has been discovered that the charge brought against Armine was perfectly false and purely malicious. Its victim, however, could not resist the dazzling celebrity of the imaginary crime, and he preferred the reputation of closing his career by conduct which at once perplexed and astonished mankind, to a vindication which would have deprived his name of some brilliant accessories, and spared him to a life of which he was perhaps wearied.

From the first chapter of the novel Henrietta Temple, 1837, broken into shorter paragraphs for better online readability. Disraeli portrait was painted by Sir Francis Grant in 1852.

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