There was the little altar with the embroidered cloth, lighted with candles, the staircase adorned with pots of flowers, the ground covered with rose-leaves, and the servants and relations at the door, holding lighted tapers in gloved hands. Not a single detail was forgotten. The Chatterbox, in his glory, assumed the manners of a general at the head of his troops. Everybody obeyed and seconded him as if he were a chief. Then, if the patient died, it is hardly necessary to say that his power was still more omnipotent. From the laying-out of the corpse to the final function of burial, there was nothing but what he had a hand in. And as there were generally sick people to nurse, images to dress, friends who wanted their hair dressed, or flowers to be arranged, Manuel had rather a busy life. In performing these offices, or in going from house to house fetching and carrying news, the days and years slipped by. He lived with two sisters, older than himself, and they looked after him, and cared for him as if he were still a child. They paid no heed to their brother's wig, wrinkles, or false teeth, and the hours he spent on his toilette, and his baths provoked a compassionate smile. Whilst they bitterly deplored the ravages made by time on their own faces and figures, they seemed to think that their brother had arrested the course of the common enemy, and that he had in fact some elixir for keeping himself eternally young. Manuel Antonio was methodical in his visits: he had several houses at which he called every day at the same time. He went to Don Juan Estrada's at three o'clock, the coffee hour; he took chocolate with the Countess of Onis every afternoon, and he was a regular habitue at the evening receptions of the Senora de Quinones. There were several other families that he frequently visited. He dropped into the houses of Maria Josefa Hevia and the Mateos in the morning for a little while, just to hear any news that was going, or to inspect their work, and sometimes of an evening, he went to the Senoritas de Mere.
"Look, here is the count!" he exclaimed in his peculiarly effeminate tone. "Ah! what a cunning fellow the count is!"
"How?" said the count, approaching.
Then the smile suddenly left the lips of the nobleman.
"What? What do you mean?" he exclaimed with undisguised confusion.
Amalia also looked upset, and her pale cheeks grew red.
"We have been grumbling at you, my man, and a pretty character we gave you. Yes, Manuel Antonio has been saying that you are a dog in the manger," said Amalia.
"No, you were the one who said so."
"I?" exclaimed the lady.
"And why am I the dog in the manger?" said the count. "Let us hear."
"Because Amalia says you do not want to eat the meat yourself, and you will not let Don Santos eat it."
"Get along! Hold your tongue, you rude fellow!" said the lady half-laughing, giving him a pinch.
"What is being said of Don Santos?" asked a short, broad gentleman, with a fat purple face, who approached the group.
The count and Amalia did not know what to answer.
"They were remarking," said Manuel Antonio, with his ready tongue, "that Don Santos thought of taking us up to his place, the Castaneda (Chestnuts)."
"No, no, it was not that," returned the stout man with a forced smile.
"Yes it was, and Amalia maintained that you were not up to taking us to the Castaneda for the day."
"But, my good fellow, you seem bent on painting me in very black colours," said Amalia.
"Because I am a real friend. How pale you have been looking lately.... You must credit me, Santos, for having a higher opinion of your generosity than the majority of people. 'You don't know Don Santos,' I often say to those who declare that you do not like spending money. 'If Don Santos does not spend and does not entertain his friends, it is not from avarice but from indolence, and from want of a fitting occasion. The man is self-distrustful, and incapable of proposing banquets or festivities; but let anybody start the idea, and you will see how gladly it will be followed up.'"
"Thank you, thank you, Manuel Antonio," murmured Don Santos, with a rabbit-like smile.
The poor man was indeed continually haunted by the fear of appearing mean. Like many of the Indians, the fact of his being immensely rich gave him a reputation, not utterly unfounded, of being mean. He arrived a few years ago from Cuba, where by dint of first packing cases with sugar and then selling them, he amassed an immense fortune. He was like a Bedouin, without any regard for what went on in the world; he could not speak a dozen words correctly, nor comport himself like other men. The thirty years he had spent behind a counter had caused his legs to swell, which had given him the gait of a drunken man. The high colour of his complexion was so characteristic, that in Lancia, where few people escaped a nickname, he was dubbed Garnet.
In the midst of his misery he enjoyed making some show with his riches. He built a most magnificent house: the steps were of marble from Carrara, the furniture from Paris, &c. Nevertheless, when he came to pay the large bills contracted in its construction, he was careful to see what could be taken off for the value of the paper and cord, used for packing the things for their transit from Paris. With this object in view, he would carefully examine these wrappings accumulated in a heap in a corner. When the house was finished, he took possession of the ground-floor, and let the other two. And then began his martyrdom—a martyrdom long and terrible. The servants and children of the second and third floors were his torturers. If he heard the floors of the second storey being rubbed, he was put in a bad humour, for he said that sand was bad for boarded floors. If he saw a mark made on the stucco by the careless hand of some little child, he was very angry and muttered words of dread import. If he heard a door shut violently, the sound seemed to go to his heart, and fears filled his mind lest the hinges should be loosened, and the bolts displaced. At last the continual excitement threw him into such a highly nervous state that his health visibly declined. A friend of his, who was quite as miserable, although endowed with more spirit, suggested that he should leave the house and live in another one. And so he did, for he returned to the hotel where he had put up during the building of his palace.
But Santos was remiss in the performance of the duty considered incumbent on all those who make large fortunes from the sugar trade in America—he failed to enter into matrimony with any lady, young or old, pretty or ugly.
None of his friends ever took a tradesman's daughter for a wife, and Garnet could not do less than they. On the contrary, as he was richer than any of them, it was natural that he should expect more social advantages. And so it came about that he fixed his prominent, bloodshot eyes upon the prettiest, richest, and most charming girl in the town—on nobody less than Fernanda Rosa. The fact aroused the astonishment and derision of the neighbourhood. For highly as money was esteemed in Lancia, it was not thought equal to the accomplishment of a feat like this. The pride of the province marry a fellow of his caste! The girl was angry and indignant. At first she considered it a joke; then she became annoyed, and finally she ridiculed the idea. At last she became used to Garnet's attentions, and it pleased her self-love to be a subject of adulation, which she unmercifully snubbed in return. But Santos was pertinacious in his courtship. With the persistence of a fly which dashes against glass, trying a hundred times to pass through the obstruction, neither repulses, ridicule, nor rude remarks rebuffed him for long. He returned the next day, metaphorically speaking, to break his head against the cold disdain of the proud heiress. He really thought that the real obstacle to the realisation of his hopes was the Conde de Onis. He acknowledged that Fernanda was somewhat attracted to him, or, as he thought, to his title, and he seriously considered going to Madrid to buy one of the same rank as that of his rival. But when he was told that the papa set no store by such things, he gave up the idea. In the meanwhile, he vowed revenge on the gallant count, and hated him with a deadly hatred, which he showed by never losing an opportunity of making fun of his ugly, old-fashioned, dilapidated house. The count was rich in land, but his income could not be compared with that of the opulent Garnet.
"And if not, you will see the day that he marries what a change will be effected in the place," continued Manuel Antonio; "we shall have banquets, and balls, and fetes champetres every day."
"But suppose Fernanda does not like balls?" said Emilita Mateo, who was dancing with Paco Gomez, and had her back to the group.
"I do not know that I have mentioned Fernanda," said the Chatterbox severely.
"I thought you were talking of Don Santos marrying, and I supposed you meant with her."
"Then do not suppose any more, but attend to your dancing with Paco, for I reckon he has been waiting five minutes."
Paco was a very slender young man, so tall that he reached the lintels of the doorways, with a head about the size of a potato, and such a thin face that he really only seemed to walk about by permission of his undertaker. And with these physical peculiarities, he was the wittiest person of the place.
"Well, my child!" he exclaimed, standing in front of the Chatterbox. "The only thing for which I should regret dying would be to be deprived of the pleasure of seeing such bewitching creatures as yourself."
With this he gave his beard a derisive sort of touch.
We know that Manuel Antonio could not bear anybody's hands near him in public.
"Be off, you jackdaw, be off!" he returned, with visible irritation as he pushed him away.
"But are you not fetching? Why, my man, if this were lost to view! Look what a mouth! Goodness alive, what shaped eyes! Did you ever see such a texture of the skin?"
And as he touched him again, Manuel repulsed him with a hard push of real anger.
"Caramba! how cross you are to-day!" said the Conde de Onis.
"It does not matter," returned Paco with a sigh, "white hands never offend."
At that moment it was his turn to figure in the rigodon, and he went off with Emilita.
Maria Josefa, who had been dancing a little way off, now came up with her partner, a lieutenant of the battalion of Pontevedra.
"Why, Don Santos, you are cruel! Why do you not go and keep Fernanda company? She is quite alone."
This was true, for the little friend of the rich heiress having found a partner for the dance, Fernanda was sitting by herself.
"Yes, yes, you ought to go, Santos," said Manuel Antonio; "see, the girl has left an empty chair by her side; she could not give a stronger hint."
So saying, he winked at the count, who confirmed his statement by saying: "I think it would only be polite."
Garnet cast a sharp glance at the speaker and surlily returned:
"Then why don't you go yourself and sit by her side?"
"For the simple reason that we have nothing to talk about. But with you it is quite different."
"That is understood, Senor Conde. I am not a child," he murmured very crossly.
"Although you are not a child in age," said Amalia, intervening to prevent discord, "you are one in the frankness and spontaneity of your sentiments, and in the freshness of heart, that other people younger than you are remiss in. Children love with more simplicity and fervour than men."
"But men do something more heroic—they marry," said Paco Gomez, who was again standing near with his partner.
"There are occasions when they do not marry either," returned Manuel Antonio, making an imperceptible grimace, by which it could be seen that he was thinking of Maria Josefa.
"Very well," returned that gentleman, abandoning the argument; "but it must be allowed that there are cases when such an act would require a heroism beyond human nature."
The old maid who overheard this last remark, cast a withering look at the speaker.
"Human nature, indeed!" she retorted with displeasure, "human nature sometimes assumes such eccentric forms that heroism would appear out of place."
However, Paco Gomez was not a whit confused, and merely touched his face with comic gestures, feigning a dumb submission, which made the others laugh. Amalia, seeing the conversation was getting dangerous, changed the subject by exclaiming:
"Look, see what Don Santos has been doing whilst we have been busy talking!"
And, in fact, the Indian had quietly left his seat and glided into a chair by Fernanda's side.
She glanced at him coldly, and hardly deigned to respond to his ceremonious and pompous greeting. Nevertheless, the red face of Garnet shone like that of a god sure of his omnipotence. With his large, broad, fat hands spread out on his knees, his body bent forwards, and his head raised as much as the fat nape of his neck would permit, he disclosed a row of large teeth as his lips wreathed in a beneficent smile. Trying, according to his wont, to make conversation, he said:
"Have you noticed in what quarter the wind is?"
The young lady made no reply.
"It does not signify now," he continued, "as all the fruit is gathered in, but if it had come sooner, we should not have had a chestnut nor a grain of maize left, he! he!"
To judge from the expression of pleasure which shone in his eyes, Garnet delighted in giving utterance to this remark.
"But it is not cold here, eh? I am not cold, he! he! On the contrary I feel hot. It is because your eyes are two coals—they are burn——"
Another time he would have finished the word burning without any hesitation, but to excuse his confusion, he feigned a cough which made his purple face look as if he were suffering strangulation.
The beauty, who had kept her eyes fixed on space, now turned her head towards her adorer, and looked at him with a vague, absent expression, as if she did not see him. She then got up, and without vouchsafing a word, took a seat a little way off. So the Indian was left with the same stereotyped smile on his face, like the petrified grimace of a satyr. But when he saw the eyes of the others fixed derisively upon him, he suddenly became cross and peevish.
"What has this Garnet to do with the ladies?" said Paco Gomez to the count. "As I was saying the other day, you do not need to go to America for rich women. Your face is your fortune."
"Look, my dear count, you ought to go and sit by her side. You will see she won't get up then," said Manuel Antonio.
"Yes, yes, you ought to go, Luis," said Maria Josefa, "we shall be able to see then whether she is in love with you or not. Really, Amalia, ought he not to go?"
"Yes, it seems to me that you ought to sit by her side," said the lady in measured, trembling tones.
"Do you think so?" asked the count, looking earnestly at her.
"Yes, go," returned the lady, with perfect serenity, avoiding his eyes.
"Then you must allow me to disobey you, as I do not wish to expose myself to a rebuff."
"What do rebuffs signify when you are in love?... Because from what I hear, you are in love with Fernanda. It is known for a mile round."
"Certainly for a mile round, for that is not saying much," interposed Manuel Antonio.
And Maria Josefa, and Emilita Mateo, and Paco Gomez all corroborated the remark with a smile.
Amalia insisted effectually. Luis had tried his best to avoid suspicion; but as all efforts are ineffectual to exclude every ray of light, she had guessed for some time past that the count nourished in the depths of his heart an affectionate regard for Fernanda.
"Listen to me," she said; "a few days ago somebody happened to say to Moro that he had two false teeth. You cannot think how put out the poor man was; a little more and he would have beaten him who told him of it."
"I am not as bad as that," said the count, "but I expressed myself somewhat emphatically, as injustice always annoys me," and he smiled shamefacedly.
"Oh! excitement in such cases is always suspicious. When one feels no interest in anybody, one is not so vehement in denying it. Caramba! I never saw you so put out as you are now. One can see that the girl has a valiant champion ready to break lances on her behalf."
The lady did not leave the joke. She seemed to wish the count to think that his love for Fernanda was a foregone conclusion. In spite of the kind smile on her face, there were certain strange inflexions in her voice that were only noticeable to one person present at that moment.
But the rigodon was over and the little group was augmented by the arrival of several other couples. Some came, and others went, until at last the lady found herself surrounded by fresh people. Another waltz was danced, and another. Then twelve o'clock struck from the cathedral clock. And as the young people showed no sign of dispersing, Manin, according to the custom of the house, appeared by Don Pedro's order at the drawing-room door with an armful of wraps belonging to the ladies. This was the signal for withdrawal adopted by the Senor de Quinones at his parties. It was not very courteous, but nobody was offended; on the contrary, it was received in good part and considered a pleasant sort of joke.
After they had all shaken hands with the Grandee, they formed a group in the middle of the drawing-room, and Amalia in the centre bade farewell to her female friends, as she kissed them affectionately. She was pale, and her eyes looked anxious and feverish as she gave her hand to the count; she turned her head aside, feigning inattention; but she pressed his fingers firmly three or four times as if to inspire him with courage, for indeed the poor man was in want of it. He was so nervous and trembling that Amalia thought that he would collapse entirely.
And then the guests quickly passed into the passages and down the damp stone staircase. A servant was there to open the street-door.
"Ah! Who left this basket here?" said Emilita Mateo, who was the first to come across the obstruction.
"A basket?" asked several ladies as they came up to her.
"Perhaps some poor creature asleep about here," said the servant, who had not yet closed the door.
"There is nobody to be seen," said Manuel Antonio, who had quickly surveyed the portico.
Curiosity then prompted one of the ladies to raise the cloth which covered the basket. Whereupon the same exclamation was heard that Pharaoh's daughter uttered when she saw the celebrated basket of Moses floating on the river.
Then ensued a moment of amazement and curiosity among the guests. They all rushed forward, all wishing to see the foundling at once. For no one doubted for an instant but that the child had been purposely left there. Paco Gomez picked up the basket and uncovered it completely, so as to show the sleeping child to his friends.
Then followed a storm of exclamations.
"Little angel! Who could have been so wicked? Poor little soul! What stony-hearted creatures! Oh, my goodness! Look how beautiful he is! Has he been left in the cold long? The little thing must be perished. Paco, let me touch it."
The basket was passed from hand to hand. The ladies, who were very interested and trembling with emotion, pressed so many tender kisses on the cheeks of the newly-born that it was aroused from its sleep.
A feeble cry from the little pink creature filled every heart with pity, and some of the ladies burst into tears.
"Let us take it upstairs so that it may be warmed a little."
"Yes, yes; let us take it upstairs."
And forthwith the chattering crowd rushed into the hall and up the staircase of the mansion of the Quinones, carrying the mysterious basket in triumph.
Amalia was standing pale and motionless in the middle of the drawing-room when the doors were re-opened. Don Pedro had been taken to bed by Manin and another servant. The fresh sudden invasion seemed a great surprise to the lady of the house.
"What is the matter? What is this?" she exclaimed, in an agitated voice.
"A baby, a baby!" was the simultaneous cry of many voices.
"We have just found it in the doorway," said Manuel Antonio, putting down the basket which he had carried upstairs.
"Who left it there?"
"We do not know. It is a foundling. Look! See how beautiful it is, Amalia."
"Perhaps some poor person, who will come and fetch it, just left it in the doorway."
"No, no; we have inspected the doorway, and the street is deserted."
The little creature, who was disturbed by all this excitement, now stretched out its two little rosebud fists, and the compassion of the ladies was evinced in passionate exclamations. Each one wished to kiss it and press it to her bosom. At last Maria Josefa managed to get possession of it, and taking it from the basket she tenderly wrapped it in the cloak with which it had been covered, and pressed it to her bosom. Then a paper which had been in the child's clothes fell to the ground. Manuel Antonio picked it up. On the paper was written in large awkward-looking characters, evidently with the left hand: "The unhappy mother of this baby girl commends her to the charity of the Senores de Quinones. It is not baptised."
"It is a girl, then!" exclaimed several ladies in one voice.
And in the tone of this remark it was evident that the discovery was somewhat disappointing. They had been so certain it was a boy.
"What mystery is this?" asked Manuel Antonio, whilst a malicious smile curled his lip.
"Mystery? There is no mystery," returned Amalia with some displeasure. "It is evidently some poor woman who wants her child to be maintained."
"Notwithstanding, there is a je ne sais quoi strain of mystery about the matter, and I would wager that the parents of this baby are well-to-do," replied the Magpie.
"Well, now you are getting foolish!" exclaimed the lady, with a nervous smile. "Well-to-do people do not leave their children dressed in rags."
Certainly the baby was dressed in miserable clothes and covered with a scanty, dirty cloak.
"Gently, Amalia, gently," interposed Saleta in his clear, quiet voice. "Many years ago I found in the doorway of my house in Madrid a child enveloped in very old clothes, and at the end of some time we ascertained that he was the son of a very important personage, who shall be nameless."
All eyes were now turned to the Galician magistrate in surprise.
"It was a very important personage, it was——" he continued, after a pause, with the same cool impertinence: "well, it was very easy to guess who it was; the features of the face showed him to be a perfect Bourbon."
The audience was quite taken aback. They looked at each other with the slightly amused smile prevalent on such occasions, and Saleta was quite unconcerned.
"Hurry up!" exclaimed Valero; "won't you have your umbrella?"
"The child died when he was two months old," continued the imperturbable Saleta; "and it was a fact that when we went to the cemetery, a carriage joined the funeral cortege, and nobody knew to whom it belonged. But I knew it, for I had seen it in the royal stables; however, I held my tongue."
"Will the babbler never cease?" murmured Valero.
"All right, Saleta; you must tell us this story by day, at night such things are rather boring," said the Chatterbox intervening and winking at the others. "What we have to think of now, Amalia, is what is to be done with the baby."
The lady shrugged her shoulders with indifference.
"I don't know. We will leave her here to-night, and to-morrow we will look for a nurse for her, for it is really quite an upset."
"If you do not care about keeping her in the house, I shall be very pleased to take charge of her, Amalia," said Maria Josefa, who had stood a little apart cooing to the baby to keep it quiet.
"I did not say that I did not wish to," returned the lady, somewhat sharply. "I will take the child, because it concerns me more than anybody, since it is confided to my care. But, as you can understand, before doing so I must consult my husband."
The guests greeted these words with a murmur of approbation.
Just at that moment Manin appeared, to ask the meaning of all the excitement. It was explained to him. Then the Senor de Quinones had himself brought back into the drawing-room in his wheeled chair; and when he saw the baby, he at once interested himself in her behalf.
He immediately declared she should not leave the house, and he told a servant to find a nurse in the morning. In the meanwhile the little creature had a little milk and tea in a flask with an india-rubber top; and it was then enveloped in better wraps. The guests watched these operations with the keenest interest. The ladies uttered cries of enthusiasm, and their eyes overflowed with tears when they saw the eager way the baby sucked the top of the bottle.
When all was done, they said good-bye again; but they did not leave without each one pressing a kiss on the cheeks of the poor little foundling baby.
All this time the Conde de Onis did not open his lips. He stood in the third or fourth row, following with eager eyes all the attention and care bestowed upon the infant. But when he was about to depart without again taking leave, Amalia stopped him with an audacity which almost petrified him.
"What is this, count? Do you not wish to kiss my charge?"
"I, yes, Senora."
This was the finishing stroke. And pale and trembling he approached, and put his lips on the little creature's forehead, whilst the lady watched him with a provoking triumphant smile.
This was the third night that the Conde de Onis could hardly close his eyes. Nothing was more natural than that he should be agitated and feverish the last two nights; but now, wherefore? All had happened as it had been arranged. The undertaking had succeeded well, he had nothing to do but sleep on his triumph. But it was not so. In spite of his strong robust figure, the Conde had an excessively nervous and impressionable temperament. The slightest emotion upset him and excited him to an indescribable extent. Such intense sensibility was the result of heredity as well as education. His father, Colonel Campo, had been a self-centred sensitive man, of such keen susceptibility that he was quite a martyr to it the last years of his life. Everybody in Lancia recollected the interesting touching episode which closed the life of the single-minded gentleman.
The colonel had had to send forces to defend a place in Peru during the insurrection of the American colonists; but the place was taken by surprise in an underhand way. By a false report the colonel was accused of treachery before the Government at Madrid, it being asserted that he had been in collusion with the enemy. With severe precipitancy, without impartial evidence of the facts, and without taking into consideration the Conde of Onis' brilliant career in the Service, the king deprived him of his commission, and all the crosses and decorations in his possession. The punctilious old soldier was completely crushed by this unexpected blow. His comrades snatched the pistol from him just when he attempted his life. Accompanied by a faithful attendant, he left Madrid and came to Lancia, where his wife and son of tender age were awaiting him. The family life was a sedative for the wounded heart of the soldier. But the brave man who had so often defied death, had not the courage to face the curious eyes of his fellow-citizens. Instead of rebelling against the injustice that had been done him, instead of trying to convince his compatriots of his innocence, which would not have been very difficult, as they all esteemed his character, and knew his bravery, he was so conscious of his disgrace that he avoided the sight of people and retired to his house, and he never walked farther than the garden at the back of the house, bounded by high, crumbling walls.
The palace of the Counts of Onis deserves especial mention in this story. It was a very old building; some remains of the original edifice which were still extant, were the oldest part of the town. Nothing else was saved from the dreadful fire which destroyed the city in the fourteenth century. It was more like a fortress than a mansion. There were a few narrow windows fitted with stone columns, scattered capriciously over the facade, a bare stone wall blackened by time, with several square holes like ventilators near the roof, and a large door in the middle studded with heavy nails. Inside it was immense, and more cheerful. The courtyard was broader than the street.
The sun came in at the window at the back at midday, and its rays were tempered by the branches of the garden-trees which formed a pleasant curtain.
There was a great deal of mystery and enchantment about this old house for the Lancians, who were endowed with imagination; more especially for the children, who are the only beings who are open to weird fancies in this prosaic age.
The facade, if such a name can be given to the aforesaid wall, faced the Calle de la Misericordia, one of the most central streets of the town.
One of the windows, perchance the largest, overlooked the Calle de Cerrajerias, and from it could be seen the cathedral in the distance.
Here it was that the ex-colonel buried himself; for neither the entreaties of his wife nor the few relations who came to see him, prevailed on him to change his habits.
But his retirement was useful to the house, for he put the garden in order, had balconies placed at the back of the house, furnished various rooms, had the courtyard paved, &c.
Thus, without losing its character of mystery, the dismal old house was transformed into a pleasanter abode.
But the old soldier having fallen into disgrace, seemed to wither up within its walls like a tree in want of air and water.
A profound melancholy sapped his constitution: his skin became wrinkled, his hair turned white, his legs grew feeble, and his hands shaky.
At fifty-eight he looked as old as if he were seventy, but this change was unnoticed in the house.
He glided about the corridors like a ghost. Whole days went by without any one hearing the sound of his voice. But he was not disagreeable to anybody, and there was a sweet pleasant smile always on his lips.
He never courted caresses from his child, but when he met him by chance in the passages he would lay his hand on his head, kiss him fondly, murmur tender words in his ear, and then turn away, sometimes with tears in his eyes. He thought it a blot on the life of that little boy, ruddy and beautiful as a cherubim, to have been born of a disgraced father, and the unhappy man seemed to ask his pardon for his existence. It was the year 1829; four years had elapsed since the colonel arrived from America, and he looked a very spectre. He slept well, ate well, and nothing seemed to worry him; but his life seemed slipping away, in a slow but sure consumption. His wife sent for a doctor, and then another and another. But they all said the same: it was necessary for him to amuse himself and to associate with people. And these were just the particular remedies which the count declined to adopt. By degrees he stayed longer in bed, he rose later, and retired to rest earlier. He lost all inclination to work in the garden, never went outside the four walls of the house, and indoors he gave up looking after the things which used to interest him, being generally handy, such as attending to the aviary and other manual occupations. The few hours that were not passed in bed were spent in an armchair, or in walking through the corridors in silence, until at last he left off getting up altogether. Luis recollected all this perfectly. When he used to go into his father's apartments he saw him with his eyes fixed on the ceiling and an expression of terrible distress upon his face. He would turn his head when his son entered the room, smile, call him to him by signs, and after giving him a kiss would seem to want him to go.
One day the boy saw much coming and going in the house; the servants were running about in distress, exchanging rapid words with each other. The few available friends and relations were summoned, and frightened the child by their long faces. On entering his father's room he saw that an altar was being erected. Having been placed in a corner by one of the servants, he was told not to be afraid, but his father was about to confess, and partake of the Holy Communion when the Divine Majesty would be present. The injunction not to be frightened, which was repeated several times, produced a contrary effect. The boy understood that something serious was going on. In fact, the Count of Onis was dying; he was certainly taking his departure, as his relations said. The doctor said he was to be prepared.... At six o'clock in the evening the doors of the palace of Onis were thrown open to receive the priest, who had come in the carriage of the house bearing the Sacred Host. The servants and relations were waiting in the doorway with lighted torches. A large file of people of all classes, also bearing lights, came behind. Many of them came out of real regard and devotion for the patient; but the majority came out of curiosity to see one who had lived so long apart from the world under such solemn, critical circumstances.
All those that wished to, came right into the presence of the dying man. No obstacle was put in anybody's way, so a strange and motley crowd filled the count's room: well-to-do people, poor people, and children, were all anxious to see the fallen man, now that he was about to fall into the dark bosom of death, the oblivion of eternity. The dean of the cathedral, his friend and confessor, approached with the elevated Host. The people present fell on their knees, a solemn silence reigned. At that moment the sick man, who had been propped up in bed, said in a loud voice, addressing himself to the kneeling assembly:
"I swear by the Sacramental God about to enter my body, that I have never been a traitor to my country, and that in the American war I always behaved like a loyal and honourable gentleman."
His voice, which appeared to come from a corpse, sounded clear and sharp in the room. There was a repressed murmur among the people. The dean, with tears in his eyes, replied:
"Blessed are those that hunger and thirst after righteousness;" and he put the blessed Sacrament in the colonel's mouth. The news of the old soldier's affirmation ran through the town. The strange and terrible oath, which was repeated from one to the other, made a profound impression on the public. The relations and friends of the count made a great parade of the matter. One of them thought of presenting a petition to the king, signed by all the neighbours, begging him to revoke the colonel's sentence. But the dean had anticipated him, and being an energetic, eloquent man, he got the archbishop and the Chapter of the cathedral to favour his mission to Madrid for the intercession for the re-installation of the friend of his infancy in his military rank. Meanwhile the patient slightly improved, the illness did not seem to get worse; but, although it was not externally noticeable, the consumption was gaining ground.
Nothing was said about the deputation to the king. However, the dean had time to get to Madrid, gain an audience of his Majesty, appeal to his pity with the account of the solemn statement made in his presence, obtain a royal commission restoring the count all his honours with all the accompanying crosses and decorations, and return to Lancia mad with anxiety. How delightful it was to find his friend had not expired! He ran from the boat in which he had travelled, to the palace of the Onis, and with the greatest precaution, to avoid over-excitement for the patient, the good news was communicated to him. The colonel remained motionless for some time with his face hidden in his hands.
"What time is it?" he said at last.
"It is just two," was the reply.
"Let me have my uniform at once!" he exclaimed with unusual energy, raising himself up without anybody's help.
"Rayo de Dios! Quick, my uniform," he repeated more emphatically, seeing that no one moved.
At last the countess went to the wardrobe, and brought it out. He had himself quickly dressed; the ribbon of Carlos III. put across his breast, and all the crosses he had won. There were so many, that he could not put them all on the left side, so some had to come to the right. In this attire he had himself led to the window looking on to the Calle de Cerrajerias, and there he stood. It was not long before the faithful, repairing home from Mass, which was the best attended of the Sunday services, saw this strange, corpse-like figure, dressed in his grand uniform, at the window. And with a feeling of sadness, respect, and compassion, they all filed by the house with their eyes riveted upon him.
For three consecutive Sundays the colonel made a point of getting up and going through the same ceremony. He stood for half an hour displaying his signs of honour, with his eyes ecstatically fixed on space, without seeing or hearing the crowd which collected before the palace with manifestations of the gravest interest and concern. On the fourth Sunday he wished to do the same, and peremptorily insisted on being dressed, but he at that instant fell back on the pillows, never to rise again. So that night God took the brave, punctilious soldier unto Himself. Poor father! The count could never think of that scene, so deeply graven in his mind, without tears rising to his eyes. He had inherited from him the exquisite delicacy of feeling, and a susceptibility that almost amounted to weakness, without the serenity, power of taking the initiative, and the unbending will that had characterised Colonel Campo. The present count had an excessively sensitive and affectionate disposition, together with the integrity and modesty peculiar to the Campos. But these qualities were counteracted by a weak, fanciful, moody character, which was doubtless inherited from his mother's family.
Donna Maria Gayoso, the widowed Countess of Onis, daughter of the Baron de los Oscos, was a very original person; so exceptionally original that she bordered on the eccentric. In her whole family for the last three or four generations there had been some exhibition of eccentricity that in some members had passed into madness.
Her grandfather had been a hardened atheist and a follower of Voltaire and the Encyclopaedia; then he became a victim to drunkenness in his last days, and, according to the general report, he was carried off by devils to the infernal regions. He had really died of spontaneous combustion, which fact gave rise to such a fabulous story. Her father was a weak-minded man, and her mother, a woman of uncommon energy, had him completely under her thumb. Of his uncles, one had gone melancholy mad; another distinguished himself in mathematics, but he was so eccentric that his curious ways were retailed as amusing anecdotes in Lancia; and another retired to the country, married a peasant, and killed himself with drinking. She had only one remaining brother, the present Baron de los Oscos. He was an original and an eccentric creature. At the commencement of the civil war he put himself under the banner of the Pretender, and entered his army, but only on condition of serving as a common soldier. This resolution made a great sensation.
But all the persuasions of the grandees about Don Carlos, and even those of the king himself, were powerless to make him accept an officer's commission. He was wounded several times, and in one case he was so seriously injured in the face that he was deeply scarred; and as his face was already as ugly as it could well be, the deep red seam finished by rendering his appearance ghastly to a degree that was terrible.
He was younger than his sister Maria, not being yet fifty, and he lived alone and celibate in the dreary old house belonging to the los Oscos in the Calle del Pozo, which had certainly nothing grand about it. He rarely went to see his sister, not from any antipathy, but from the unsociability and crustiness of his disposition. He seldom left his house, particularly in the daytime. He had very few friends, and his most intimate one—in fact, the only one who might be said to enjoy his friendship—was an uncloistered friar, who before taking orders had served as an officer in the army. This Fray Diego was his constant companion. The baron inspired universal terror with his gloomy character, his eccentricities, and more especially by the fearful appearance of his face. The children were quite panic-stricken in his presence. Parents and nurses used him as a bugbear to make them obedient:
"I will go and tell the baron about you! The baron will come! I saw the baron to-day, and he asked me if you were obedient," &c.
And the baron, with his strange gestures, and rough, loud voice, became a very ogre to the poor little innocent things. He constantly went about armed with a pair of pistols; and the handle of his stick was a veritable club. It was said that he once made an end of a servant merely for having opened a letter, and that on several occasions he seized hold of children who dared to make faces at him in the street, put them in the stable, undressed them, and thrashed them soundly with the bridle of his horse. True, or invented, these stories were calculated to make the infant minds of Lancia regard him as a monster of ferocity from whom they fled as fast as their trembling legs would carry them.
One of the things which inspired the terror of the little ones, and caused respect not devoid of fear in the grown-up people, was the horse that the baron had. It was a creature with a fiery eye, and so fierce that nobody but he and his friend Fray Diego, who had served in the cavalry, dared to mount him. He had to be most cleverly managed when taken to drink, and even then the ungovernable brute reared and kicked to the alarm of all the passers-by. When the baron mounted and left his house, striking about him, and laying into the horse with his whip, the neighbours rushed to their windows, the children took refuge in the bosoms of their mothers, and everybody gazed in terror at the fearful centaur. Certainly the Baron de los Oscos presented at such times a formidable aspect, with his scarred face, bloodshot eyes, waxed, fierce-looking moustache, and his figure looking like part of the horse.
One's imagination had to go back to the invasions of the barbarians to find anything equal to it. Neither Alaric, Attila, nor Odoacer could have looked more strange and sinister, nor could they have inspired more terror than he. Judge, then, of the effect upon the timid neighbours when one day he took it into his head to parade the streets of the town at midnight, accompanied by a servant, a man very like him, on another charger.
The Countess of Onis was as strange in her way as her brother. She was short and stout, with a pale, round face, dull black eyes, hair plastered down with quince-juice gum, and constantly dressed in the mournful garb of a nun. She lived as secluded in her place, as a nun in a convent. She was absolutely absorbed in devotion, but it was a capricious, fantastic devotion, in no way similar to that practised by really mystic souls. All her life she had shown a tendency to eccentricity, but after the count's death it became so marked, that her strange ways assumed the form of rather serious manias. When she was young, her modesty was so extreme that it became ridiculous. The ears of the Senorita de los Oscos were so chaste that the conversation of an English "Miss" would seem like a serjeant's in her presence. She could not tolerate her brother's under-linen being put with hers when the laundress took it away or brought it home. If she was asked to sew a button on his underclothes, she ran to her room when the task was over, and washed her hands, when, it was said, she sprinkled them with holy water. She compressed her figure to a hurtful extent, and the height of the collar of her dresses was contrary to the regulations of fashion; her under-garments were only changed in the dark, and she never shook hands with a man unless she had gloves on. The history of her marriage was truly curious, full of funny incidents which were for a long time the talk of the town, and the account of the first night of her marriage, whether true or false, was worthy of figuring in a novel of Paul de Kock. One need hardly say that during her marriage this virtue of chastity became somewhat modified. But as soon as she became a widow, she resorted to her eccentric ways to a remarkable degree, and in her latter years they assumed the aspect of madness. When she told her beads, which was twice a day, she sent a servant to the poultry-yard to separate the cock from the hens; then the forks had to be separated from the spoons, and the hooks from the eyes. One day the coachman came to tell her that one of the mares had foaled, and she was so angry that, after having sharply rebuked him for his audacity in acquainting her with such a fact, she gave orders for having it sold. One day she came upon a lad giving a kiss to the cook, and she became ill with disgust, and both parties were immediately dismissed from the house.
She liked to have a party at an early hour in the evening, when she only invited clerics. On these occasions she used to sit in an armchair where, intentionally or unintentionally, probably intentionally, there were put two cushions so that she seemed to be in a valley. Soon after the arrival of the company, when the conversation became animated, she would fall into a deep sleep, and thus remain until nine o'clock, when the cassocked gentlemen retired, presumably, without shaking hands. As there was a chapel in the house she seldom went out, and when she did so, it was in the carriage. She kept all the money that came to her hands hidden away in secret places in the garret or the garden. Sometimes this avarice or, as it may be more correctly termed, this mania for hoarding, brought them into difficulties, and she preferred to let her son borrow money to disinterring her treasure. She was very greedy, and fond of dainties; and she could consume a quantity of sweets with no signs of indigestion. But such things were not made for nuns, and so, in strange contradiction to her pious inclinations, she hated all that savoured of the convent.
And it was by this eccentric, one may almost say mad, woman, that the present Count of Onis was brought up, and his character was much affected thereby. To counteract his excessive sensitiveness, his weak and vacillating temperament, and his imaginative and gloomy disposition, of which sad signs were shown at times, he ought to have been brought up in the open air under an intelligent and energetic master, who would have known how to inspire him with manly strength and resolution. But, unfortunately, it was just the contrary. The countess would not hear of any career which would take him away from Lancia; so he went to the local university, where he followed a course of jurisprudence, after which rich young men think they are entitled to pass the rest of their days in idleness. During his college career the countess kept him under her authority in a way that became ridiculous. He never left the house without permission, he came in at dark, he told his beads, and went to confession when she bade him to. Whilst his body developed to a marvellous degree, so that he became a fine athletic young fellow, his mind remained as submissive and childish as that of a ten-year-old child.
His retired effeminate life increased the natural timidity of his character, his sensitiveness became weakness, and his gloomy nature secretive. And the most lamentable thing was, that without being a shining light, he was gifted with clear intelligence, and possessed a penetration frequently found in reserved and timid men. He was wanting in self-confidence and experience; but he showed a great deal of tact in conversation; shortcomings of his neighbour never escaped him and, as with most weak characters, he took a mischievous delight in drawing attention to them. It is the revenge taken by characterless people upon those who have a vigorous and spontaneous one. Nevertheless, these outbursts of irony and malignity were not very frequent. He generally appeared a prudent, reserved, melancholy young man, with courteous gentlemanly manners, a feeling heart, and full of affection and respect for his mother. After his college career was over, his inclination and plans were in favour of leaving Lancia, going to court, and travelling for some time. But the countess's disapproval was enough to make him give up the idea and remain at home. So he spent his days in idleness without feeling in anyway obliged ever to glance from time to time into his books of jurisprudence. He amused himself occasionally with certain manual occupations, and in reading the works of romance much in vogue at the time. He became a clever carpenter, but not so clever as his father; and then he took up watch-making. Finally, he developed an interest in a little property in the suburbs of the town, and set about making great improvements there. It was called the Grange, and it was situated a little more than a mile from Lancia. It was a large old rambling house, with a beautiful wood of oak trees behind, and fertile meadows in front. The count took to going there every afternoon after dinner; he bred black cattle, and horses as well; he planted trees, cut canals, and raised banks. The house he hardly touched. He gained physically by this new interest, which made him more active and hardy, and his character improved at the same time. The melancholy which had been so distressing to him decreased, and he became more cheerful, his self-confidence increased, as he had more intercourse with people, whilst the fits of anger, rage and despair which used to come over him without any cause, making him seem like an epileptic to the servants, grew rarer and rarer until they left him altogether. He thus reached his twenty-eighth year when he began to frequent the house of the Quinones, and it was then that his life underwent a complete change.
It was nine o'clock in the morning when his servant woke him from an exciting unfinished dream to give him a letter. With feigned indifference he dropped it on the night-table, but scarcely had the servant left the room when he seized it, and opened it with visible agitation.
Although his connection with Amalia was of about two years' standing, he never opened a letter from her without his hands trembling. They certainly did not often write to each other; and it was probably the rarity of the occurrence which accounted for its affecting him so much, as in truth a deep love for her had taken root in his timid, sensitive nature.
"This afternoon. By the pulpit," was all that the note conveyed, but his mind was much agitated by the communication. Such appointments were extremely dangerous. In the midst of his happiness they overpowered him with a feeling of dread he could not overcome. He had begged Amalia to give them up, but she paid no heed to his wishes, and he was perfectly incapable of opposing her will. All the morning he was nervous and upset. He took a ride to calm his nerves, and went as far as the Grange, only to return as unsettled as when he left.
At the hour named he left home and went to the Calle de Cerrajerias. It was the time of day when scarcely anybody is about. It was three o'clock, and so people were either at table or resting. At the end of Cerrajerias, at the corner of Santa Lucia, is the church of San Rafael, and the principal entrance is on that side. The count entered the building, after taking holy water, like one about to say his prayers. He was quite alone, or at least he seemed so at first sight. In a few minutes his eyes became accustomed to the semi-darkness, and he saw two or three kneeling figures scattered about. He knelt down in the dark near the little door of the staircase leading to the pew of the Quinones, and pretended to pray for a few moments. This was very repugnant to him. He was a sincere believer, and his strictly pious education made him have a horror of such sacrilege. The fanaticism of his mother had left its mark upon him, and he had a fearful dread of hell. Amalia was also a believer, and she had a reputation for piety in the place: she belonged to several confraternities, she was patron of several asylums, she frequently made presents to the images, and she was generally seen with the clergy; but this profanation she regarded with the greatest indifference. Religion was for her a thing of respectability, but her own pleasures and wishes seemed the thing to be most respected. After a few minutes the count cautiously rose, and pushed the little door, which had been purposely left open, then he went in and mounted the narrow winding staircase. The little pew of the Quinones was even darker than the Church. He felt for the door of the passage and opened it, but as it had glass windows looking on to the street, he crossed it like a cat. At the door communicating with the house, Jacoba was waiting for him. She was a woman of more than fifty years of age, of portly form and demeanour. She moved with difficulty, for her breath was short, from her extreme fatness, and she always spoke in a falsetto voice. She was discretion itself, a sealed book. The count and Amalia had never had any other confidante. Nobody else in the world was acquainted with their love affair, and she had served them wonderfully through its course. Acting as sentinel, she had often saved them from discovery, for she had constituted herself their guardian angel. She was not a servant in the house, but the senora was one of her patrons. Her occupation was to run errands to the shops for different houses, and the perquisites made on the purchases formed the staple of her livelihood. This was not, however, sufficient for her maintenance, but she was alone and a spinster, and in many houses presents were made her, and she was helped in a hundred ways. The Senora de Quinones was her especial patroness, and when she became her confidante, it was like coming upon a mine of wealth, for Amalia paid lavishly for services which certainly deserved great compensation.
The go-between put her finger on her lips as a sign of silence directly the count entered the door, but as he was already holding his breath to avoid making a noise, this warning was quite unnecessary. Then going a little way first, to see how the ground lay, she made him a sign to follow her. They crossed a corridor, passed by the principal staircase without going up it for fear of meeting some servant, and went into the library where there was a little staircase that led thence to the second floor. The count proceeded on tiptoe with a beating heart. Although this was not the first time he had been like this to the Quinones' house, it always seemed to him the height of temerity, and he inwardly cursed his lover's boldness and disregard of consequences.
At last they came to the senora's room. The door opened without any one being seen, Jacoba gave the count a gentle push, and remained herself outside.
Amalia withdrew her hand, which she had mechanically held out, and with a sudden impulsive gesture, she threw her arms round the neck of her beloved and kissed him with tenderness. The grave man, being still upset by the manner of his arrival, remained quiescent, and did not reciprocate these demonstrations of affection. The lady then gave him a maternal tap on the cheek.
"Calm yourself, coward, nobody will eat you here."
Luis made an effort to smile and sank into a French chair upholstered with bright blue.
Amalia's room with its luxurious furniture was a contrast to the neglect that reigned in the rest of the house. The walls were covered with rich tapestry, the best of the collection in the possession of the family; the bright furniture, of Louis XV. style, was brought from Madrid, with the magnificent ebony bedstead inlaid with marble in the alcove, when Don Pedro was making futile efforts to win the heart of his wife. There was a perfumed sensual atmosphere about the place, showing the refined tastes that the foreign lady had brought from other lands to the severe mansion of the Quinones. She seated herself on the count's knee, and pulling his beard, she exclaimed with a joy that could scarcely be restrained and emanated from her whole person:
"See now, see how we have conquered. See how we have got over all those difficulties which came into your head and prevented your seeing clearly. Only a little audacity was necessary for God to help us."
"God!" said the count, with a shudder.
She felt she had been wrong in referring to the Divinity, and she hastened to say with unconcern:
"Well, then, fate, if you like. Come, don't make yourself wretched and sad. This is a moment of happiness for us. She is really here, and it seems too good to be true. My daughter, the daughter of my love living with me; being able to see her and kiss her at all hours! How beautiful she is! I could not look at her comfortably until this morning, but to-day I did so to my heart's content. She is like you—particularly about the forehead between the eyebrows. Jacoba says that the mouth is mine. I am not sorry, for it might have taken after me in something worse, is it not so?" she added, with a coquettish smile.
"I think you are beautiful all round."
"That is right!" exclaimed the lady with an affectionate look. "You have at last recovered the power of speech. Well, then," she added in a serious tone, "you do not know the trouble we had this morning to find a nurse. Three were brought to me, and neither of them suited. At last I settled on the fourth. And how beautifully my angel took to her food. I could hardly help jumping for joy, and I can hardly help it now. But I must be grave and solemn, like the senor count. Tell me, how did you manage to get her here? Tell me about it. How your face looked when the drawing-room door opened last night!"
"The thing was not easy. At nine o'clock I went to fetch her from Jacoba's house. But she will have told you about it. I had to spend two hours there, for the devil seemed in the business, and the child screamed incessantly."
"Yes, yes; I know all that. And then?"
"What a night it was! The gusts of wind were incessant, especially in those out-of-the-way suburbs. I turned up my trousers to the knee, for how could I come into your drawing-room covered with mud? I wanted to carry the basket on one arm, and the open umbrella in the other hand, but it was impossible. After a few steps, I came back and left the umbrella with Jacoba. What a walk! Holy heaven, what a business! The wind kept blowing down the collar of my coat, the rain dashed in my face and down my neck. I was frightened the baby would get wet. I went along fearing to breathe. Supposing I had slipped just then! The wind blew at times so strongly that I could hardly get along. You can easily believe that I was tempted to go back and leave it for another day."
"I can easily believe it. I know that a plate of water would be enough to drown you."
He gave her a sad, reproachful look, and then Amalia began to laugh, and embracing and kissing him effusively, she exclaimed:
"Don't be cross, poor little dear! Do not think I do not feel for you. The journey was very difficult. You bore it like a hero."
The count coloured at these praises. His conscience told him he did not deserve them; and he recollected the terrible ordeal that Amalia had herself passed through, and said:
"But you! What you must have suffered on your side! How are you? It was imprudent to go downstairs so soon."
"Oh! I am as strong as a horse, although I appear weak."
"So you seem to be. To suffer what you did without uttering a sound!"
"Pray, what can you know about it, stupid?" she said, putting a hand on his mouth.
"Then only four days in bed," continued the young man, gently taking her hand from his mouth and kissing it at the same time; "and on the fifth to go down to the drawing-room."
"But, then, nothing was supposed to have happened, and if I had not gone down yesterday, Quinones would certainly have sent for the doctor! On the second day he was worrying for me to go down. But what do you think? He is in love with the baby—quite mad about it! All the morning he has had the nurse in his room. And he has such strange ideas. He says, 'God has sent us this child to console us for having no family.'"
Then the count relapsed into sadness and gloom, whilst a smile of cruel irony played on the lips of the lady.
"And all this time you have never asked for her, you unnatural father!" she said, as she passed her delicate white fingers through her lover's thick, curly, reddish beard. "For you are her father—yes, her father. That you can't deny," she added, fondly putting her face against his so that her lips were close to his ear. "I will go and fetch her."
"But will the nurse come, too?" he asked in terror.
"No, man, no!" she answered, laughing; "she will come alone. You will see that can easily be managed."
The count opened his eyes with an expression that made her laugh more. She got up and, opening the door, she whispered a second with Jacoba who was stationed as sentinel outside. In a few minutes the stout go-between re-opened the door and brought in the sleeping child. Amalia sat down, and told her to put it on her lap. And then, for a long time, they both gazed in ecstasy at the little delicate creature as it softly breathed in its sleep. It was a moment of happiness. The count forgot his fears and became quite calm, whilst a smile of real pleasure illuminated his gentle, melancholy features. The minutes passed, and neither cared to break the blissful silence, nor disturb the intense absorption in which their minds were one. That tiny, unconscious being, that atom of rosy flesh riveted their gaze equally, and bound their souls and lives to her with invisible threads.
"How beautiful she is! She is like you," murmured the count so softly that the words hardly reached the ears of his lover.
"She is more like you," she returned in the same subdued voice.
And by a simultaneous movement, they both turned and looked at each other with a long intense look of love.
"I adore you, Amalia," he said.
"I love you, Luis," she replied.
Their hands met and pressed affectionately, and their heads were bent in the interchange of a chaste kiss.
THE HISTORY OF THEIR LOVE
Chaste, yes, and perhaps it was the first kiss that had been so in that long love affair. All that was tender and poetic in their affection seemed to rise like a perfume, and transport them with raptures of delight. The remorse that had hitherto weighed so heavily on the sensitive soul of the count was gone. The mad agitation that had tormented them both, the ardour, violence and bitterness which, like the hidden worm in the bud of a rose, had poisoned their wicked love passages, had passed away. Nothing remained but pure love—love satisfied, love consecrated by the holy mysterious force of nature's mysteries.
If only they had met earlier! How often has this been said by people in similar circumstances! And if they had met earlier, they would probably have parted without the slightest feeling of attraction.
Love flourishes on difficulties and takes root on shifting sand, in fact they seem to be the most propitious circumstances for its cultivation.
The report in Lancia was true about Amalia having been forced into a marriage with Don Pedro by her family who were in great straits. Don Antonio Sanchiz, the lady's father, was a Valencian gentleman of means, but gambling and dissipation swallowed up three-fourths of his property. His eldest son, who had the same tastes, spent the remaining fourth by the same means. Amalia was the youngest of the family, which consisted of four girls and one boy. Her eldest sister, who had come in for a little of the decaying splendour of the house, managed to marry a rich banker. Nobody approved of the connection, especially as neither Don Antonio nor his son Antonito managed to see the colour of the money of their respective son, and brother-in-law. The other two married men of good family but without money. Amalia grew up in the midst of the total ruin of her house. Neither her elegant figure nor her high birth brought her admirers. The well-known misfortunes of the house, and her father and brother's bad reputation, constituted an unsurmountable barrier around her. Her feelings were often touched by those who only paid her attention out of idleness, or love of flirtation. She was certainly not a typical beauty: she was wanting in gracefulness of figure, plumpness of form, and brightness of complexion. But in spite of her slight, and not at all well formed figure, and the constant pallor of her cheeks, there was something attractive about her, which grew upon one the more you saw of her. Perhaps this charm lay in her large expressive dark eyes, which reflected every emotion: now they shone with a fire that breathed a deep and passionate nature, now they looked quiet, ecstatic and limpid in a sort of mystic rapture, now they were merry and mischievous, now they were dreamy and melancholy, now tender and tearful, now sparkling with fun or shining with anger. Perhaps her charm lay in her versatility, in the keenness of her intellect, in her sympathetic and insinuating voice. She was, in short, an interesting, charming woman. I do not know whether it was owing to her pride or her naturally tempestuous mind, but scorning the young men of her own rank, who courted her without resolving to ask for her hand, she lost her heart to a modest young man, a poor government clerk with an income of forty thousand reales,[I] son of a schoolmaster. The blue blood of the Sanchiz in the veins of Antonio, Antonito, her sisters, and the banker, her brother-in-law, in whom it was conspicuous by its absence, boiled in indignation.
She was the victim of active, fierce persecution. But as she was not wanting in spirit, and was moreover possessed of a mind fertile in resources, she certainly managed to defy the family for some time; their entreaties and threats were of no avail and her time of enforced retreat in a convent was equally ineffectual. If the clerk had not happened to die of phthisis, which killed him in a few months, it is almost certain that the very noble and straitened house of the Sanchiz would have had to see itself allied to the son of a schoolmaster.
After this adventure Amalia lost caste in the place. But she well knew that if she had retained her prestige, it would have been the same. Men do not marry for prestige, but for money. It never occurred to her to feel remorse for the past. She lived sad and resigned for two years, showing an utter indifference to the pleasures belonging to her position, and without making any effort to gain the good graces of the young men so as to get a husband. It was when she was about twenty-four years old and she had given up all thought of matrimony, that Don Pedro Quinones, her third or fourth cousin, began to think about her. She rebelled against marrying this gentleman, whom she had only seen two or three times as a child, and who had been a widower for a short time, and whose eccentricities she had heard her father and brother relate with fits of laughter, and now they were the very ones to press her acceptance of him as a husband! She was not very firm in her resistance. She was so disillusioned, she lived in such a state of deep dejection and apathy, that as soon as her father became angry about the matter and pressed her to accede to his entreaties he extorted a consent. They all said that the marriage would be the salvation of the family. She did not trouble to find out if that were the truth or not. After she was married, she found that all that they could get out of Don Pedro was a little allowance, which gave them hardly enough for food.
So the noble descendant of the Quinones of Leon was hopelessly in love with a statue. On the journey that they made from Valencia to Lancia the bride was so cold and circumspect, but at the same time polite, that Don Pedro was kept at the same distance as at the beginning of his suit. In Lancia we know what the public version of the story was. The persistent coldness and the infinite contempt with which she treated him for some time, far from repelling him, only increased his passion. Quinones was, as we know, of a strong, tenacious, indomitable will. The obstacles which at first merely irritated him, finally enraged him. He wanted to conquer the heart of his wife, and he spared no means in the attempt: he overwhelmed her with attentions, he gratified her slightest wishes, and lived for several months in perpetual anxiety, in a perfect fever of alternate hope and despair. He would, however, never have attained his end without the astuteness of his friend the canon, who advised him to take a journey in the mountains, which, rife with frights and dangers, drew them together in closer intimacy. During the first two years of her marriage Amalia led a retired life, without ever hardly leaving the gloomy old palace of the Calle de Santa Lucia. She lived alone in her depression, and made her life more sad than it need have been, by nursing a dumb rebellion against a fate that threatened to drive her insane. To all outward appearance she was resigned, treating those that were about her with studied courtesy. The dreadful illness which happened to her husband distracted her a little, and a sentiment of pity touched her heart. For some time she thought she was destined for the vocation of a nursing sister, and she tried with assumed affection to make his life more bearable to him. By degrees she grew to like the little gatherings of friends round her husband, and she began to interest herself and take part in the local political conversations.
Don Pedro was the arbiter of the province whilst the Moderate party was in power. Now that it was out, he still retained great prestige and influence, from people not knowing how long it would be before it was in again. It was to augment this prestige and this influence, and to add to the dignity of the house, that Amalia opened her drawing-rooms to the Lancian society that she had hitherto kept at a distance, doing nothing but pay a few complimentary visits. She now gave concerts, organised sociable gatherings, and had large state balls, by means of which she regained her lost energy, and the gracious and sympathetic versatility which had characterised her; the light returned to her eyes and the smile to her lips. Nobody could better do the honours of her entertainments. She was a model of gentleness and courtesy, and she made herself adored by the young people of the place to whom she afforded the means of killing interminable winter evenings.
Fernanda Estrada-Rosa was one of the most beautiful ornaments of her concerts and parties. The Count of Onis, her admirer, came in her train. The count had long been on visiting terms at the house of Quinones, but until lately he only went occasionally in the evening for a formal visit, or at the new year, &c. Notwithstanding, he had a profound sympathy for Quinones. It was enough for him to belong to the nobility, for the young noble to consider him superior in all respects to everybody else in the place. Amalia, who hardly knew him, began to observe him with much curiosity. She had heard so much said about his affection and respect for his mother, his melancholy temperament, his habits and his exaggerated piety, that she wished to cultivate his acquaintance, she wanted to gauge the depths of the soul of such a superior and high-minded young man. She was not long in seeing that he was not yet in love. Noting his attention to Fernanda with interest, she perceived a coldness on his side which was certainly not on that of the rich heiress. She knew that the count was deceiving himself, making efforts to fall in love, or at any rate, to seem so. He seemed to look upon love as an obligation pertaining to his age and position. The chief young man in Lancia ought to love the richest, most beautiful girl of Lancia. Besides, it seemed as if he also wanted to show the place that he was neither eccentric nor a maniac, as he had heard that he was reported to be. He therefore went in for being a recognised lover; he spent a couple of hours in the morning in the Calle de Altavilla, where his young lady lived, he sat at her side at the parties of the Senoritas de Mere or de Quinones, and he danced with her at the balls of the Casino. But at the same time Amalia did not fail to see, with considerable interest, that his conversation was cold, and that the count was often silent and distrait until she took part in the conversation and made it more lively.
The love affair interested her more and more, she courted the girl's confidence as well as his. It was not long before her ardent, sagacious, strong-willed soul sympathised with that of Luis, which was so timid, childlike, pitiful, and affectionate. More proficient in the art of love-making than the Estrada-Rosa girl, she soon won the count's confidence and affection and she drew from him a number of confidences, not only about his feelings, but the whole of his life. No clever Jesuit could have made a better confessor. Luis, delighted at such a show of interest, completely opened his heart to her, at first telling her his habits, then relating things of his past life, and finally confiding secret feelings which are only told to a brother. But Amalia expressed no surprise at such original and morbid thoughts; she gave her opinion on them, and told him affectionately that he might confide in her and count upon her counsel in difficult matters of life, of which complicated mechanism the count was totally ignorant. This clever game advanced her scheme, and he confided in her more and more, happy in the opportunity of unbosoming sentimental ideas, and confessing the strange unhappy timidity to which he was a victim.
Amalia knew how to avoid arousing Fernanda's jealousy by posing as the confidante and protectress of her love. If she had long and interesting conversations with the count, she had equally long and interesting ones with her. She would have great pleasure in giving them assistance in the form of finding them opportunities of seeing and talking to each other, and when they understood each other, &c. &c. But, without the innocent girl suspecting it, without even the count realising it, the Valencian lady rapidly gained the affections of Luis. If in youth, beauty, and elegance, she was inferior to the rich heiress, she was much superior in expressive grace of countenance, power of conversation, and fine intelligence. The count soon came to telling her what was the true state of his heart with regard to Fernanda. The astute Senora knew how to turn such confidences to her own advantage by making him see that what he felt was only admiration for the beautiful works of nature, a vain desire to make himself beloved by the prettiest and richest girl in the town, the necessity of distraction from depression—anything, in short, but real love. That was shown in great sadness, ineffable joy, sleepless nights, anxiety, and agitation, both sweet and bitter, by which the breast is constantly consumed.
Luis was soon won over to her opinion. Then she added that his coldness was unjustifiable; she did not understand how a man of such good taste had not fallen hopelessly in love ere this. She joked him, she laughed at him, and she praised the qualities of the gentle heiress up to the clouds.
But whilst she said this with her lips, her eyes belied her words: the black pupils, so full of fire and intelligence, were fixed on him with an expression somewhat languid, somewhat malicious, which ended by fascinating him. At the same time her small, delicate, aristocratic hands took hold of his on every occasion; and on parting she pressed them with nervous tenacity. If sometimes, in bending to look at anything, their heads touched, Amalia did not move hers, and the count was not loth to inhale the subtle perfume which entered his veins like poison. She took a great interest in his clothes, and told him what she liked: he was not to wear a frock-coat, the blue jacket suited him admirably. Why did he like dark gloves?
"I forbid you," she said, laughing, "to wear them any more."
She professed a great taste for cravats, and she told him that those in a bow suited him better than those in a knot.
"Why do you not get your hats from Madrid?" she asked. "Those that you get in Lancia are so old-fashioned and ridiculous."
And the count was pleased to follow her suggestions, and gradually let himself be ruled by the woman who was so weak in body and so strong in will.
One night on arriving at the Quinones' house before anybody else, the lady said to him sharply:
"Who gave you that button-hole? Fernanda?"
The count smiled and coloured, as he gave a sign in the affirmative.
"Then you must excuse my saying it is a very ugly colour. Look here, I will give you a prettier one."
So saying, she went straight to a flower-stand in the room, and took out a magnificent pink clove. She then turned to where the count was standing, and with great boldness, although with a certain affectation of one who is showing her power, she took away the flower he was wearing, and replaced it by the fresh one. He suffered this substitution in silence, upset and surprised. She, feigning not to notice his surprise, took a step back, and said with interest:
"Yes, I think that is better!"
Then ensued a few minutes of embarrassed silence. She then began to play with Fernanda's clove, pulling the petals, whilst darting frequent glances at the count, who stood confused, not knowing what to say, nor where to look. At last their eyes met with a smile. There was a spark of malice in hers, and in the sudden scornful gesture with which she threw the flower she held in her hand under a chair.
The count instantly became serious, and his cheeks coloured. At that moment Manuel Antonio came in.
The count could not regain his equanimity.
When Fernanda arrived, and, with visible displeasure, asked him for her clove, he was in a very awkward position. The gardener's little boy was said to have pulled it from him when he stooped to kiss him, and so he had taken another from his mother's room. But Amalia, who was implacable, made matters worse by saying in a loud voice with a malicious smile:
"Who gave you that beautiful clove? Fernanda?"
"No, no," he hastily replied.
And then the count, quite red and upset, had to proceed to give in a loud voice the explanation he had been giving in an undertone to Fernanda. That little act of treason was a bond between them; it established a peculiar relation which the count did not dare to define in his thoughts, for he trembled as though an abyss yawned at his feet. He continued paying attention to the heiress of Estrada-Rosa with the same, if not more, assiduity, but he could never talk with the Senora of Quinones without feeling agitated; her glances were long and earnest, the pressure of her hand was full of affection, and yet they both acted before Fernanda as if she were already his affianced wife. And yet they had not uttered a word of love! But Luis knew he was not treating the lady he was courting fairly, and that he was acting criminally with regard to Don Pedro, his friend. He did not know how, or why, but his conscience told him that he was. Sometimes he tried to persuade himself that he had not taken one step in the direction of crime, that he was involved in a train of circumstances in which love, intelligence, treason, all played a part without one's knowing how it had happened.
More than a month passed by in this way. Amalia not only discoursed to him of love with her eyes, but she made him carry out all her most capricious fancies whilst sometimes sharply calling him to task.
If, for example, he caught a glance from Amalia when he was going for a walk telling him to stay, he would stay. If he was about to dance with Fernanda, a severe look would prevent him doing so.
One day he announced his intention of going for six or eight days to his property in Onis; but Amalia made a negative sign with her head, and he gave up the idea. What right had she thus to cross his wishes and direct his line of conduct? He did not know, but he felt very pleased to obey her. He lived in a state of pleasant, exciting unrest, sometimes hoping for something so ineffably delightful, that he hardly dared to formulate it even to himself.
In the meanwhile she quietly watched him with her sphinx-like smile, strong in the conviction that the something would happen when the time was ripe.
One afternoon in June the count was at The Grange inspecting the operations of some workmen he was employing in opening a wider aqueduct for the mill, when the boy who minded the cattle, came to tell him that a lady wanted him.
"A lady?" he exclaimed, surprised; "do you not know her?"
The servant stared stupidly without replying. How could he know her, when he had passed his life among the cattle and only went to Lancia on some market-day to buy or sell a cow? The count recollected this, and proceeded to inquire:
"Is she short?"
"No, she is very tall, Senor."
"Eyes very black and bright, pale colour? her gait graceful and elegant?"
And before the servant could answer these questions that he had not understood, he began running in the direction of the house with his heart beating with excitement at the presentiment that it was her.
"Where is she?" he cried, without ceasing running.
"In the courtyard by the garden door," shouted the boy in reply.
He arrived breathless at the courtyard, but before opening the door he stopped for an instant to check his presumption. How could he have thought of such a thing? What devil could have put it into his head?... Notwithstanding he could not dismiss the idea. It was she, it was she—he could not doubt the fact.
He raised the bolt of the large wooden door, painted green, and went in. The courtyard was large. Several outhouses for working purposes were built against the wall. Tied up to a roughly made wooden kennel was an enormous mastiff, who pulled at his chain as if he would break it in his attempts to get near his master.
There at the other end, near the iron gate communicating with the garden, he actually saw her looking through the bars at the flowers. She had her back to him. She was dressed in a light pink and white striped dress, with a little straw hat trimmed with roses. In her left hand she had a sunshade which matched her dress, and in her right she held some silk gloves.
How these details became engraven in his memory! They were indelibly fixed in his mind!
"You here?" he said, feigning a calmness he was very far from feeling. "Who would have thought that you were the senora whose arrival the servant just announced to me?"
"Did you really not think it was me?" she asked, looking at him fixedly.
"No, no, Senora."
But he coloured even as he said it, and the lady smiled kindly.
"Very well; now show me the Malmaison roses you told me about."
The count opened the gate, and they both went through to the garden, which was very large and somewhat neglected.
Since the countess had almost entirely given up coming to the Grange, the servants hardly touched it. Luis was more interested in making experiments with new modes of agriculture, breeding cattle, and draining ground, than in gardening. But there were many kinds of flowers, put there when his mother used to tend them every afternoon, and there were great bushes which time, combined with the fertile soil, had transformed into thick trees.
Whilst they passed along the walks, which were over-grown with moss, the countess explained in high, clear tones how she came to be there.
She had wished to drive to Bellavista, but passing by the little road that led to the Grange, she recollected the beautiful roses, and gave orders to the coachman to go that way. She had never seen the place before, she said; and she became quite enthusiastic over the thick foliage and the intense green of the place. In her country the vegetation was much paler.
"But more fragrant—like the women," said the count with gallantry.
The lady turned to give him a smile of thanks, and went on praising the beauty of the rhododendrons, the azaleas, and the gigantic camellias.
As soon as they had seen the roses, and the count had made her choose some to have sent to her the next day, they directed their steps towards the entrance-gate.
"And are you sure that I only came to see the roses?" said Amalia, suddenly stopping and fixing her eyes upon him.
The count's heart gave a bound, and he commenced to stammer in a lamentable fashion.
"I do not know—this visit, certainly. I should be so pleased if the rose-trees——"
But the lady, taking pity on him, did not let him proceed.
"Well, besides the rose-trees, I came to see the whole place, particularly the wood. And so you can show it to me," she added resolutely, taking him by the arm.
Whereupon the count was conscious of a new and violent emotion, at first painful, and then pleasurable, as he felt the lady's hand upon his arm. And moved to his inmost being at the honour conferred on him, he showed everything of interest on the estate: the beautiful large meadows, the stables, the new machinery for working the mill, and finally the wood.
She watched him out of the corner of her eye. Sometimes a smile of amusement played about her lips. She entered into everything with interest, praised the improvements he had made, and suggested fresh ones. And, in going about, she sometimes let the count's arm drop, and then took it again, which inspired the count with many diverse sensations, all intense and exciting. When she noticed he was getting more at his ease, she made some little sudden mischievous remark which plunged him into fresh confusion and made him blush to the roots of his hair.
"Now, count, when you caught sight of me just now, you said to yourself: 'Amalia has fallen in love with me and she cannot resist the desire to come and see me.'"
"Amalia, por Dios! What can make you say that? How could I ever have dared——?"
But the lady, without seeming to notice his distress or to lay any importance on her own words, passed immediately to another subject. She seemed to like shocking him, and keeping him agitated and trembling. And in the furtive glances she cast at him there was the touch of superiority and irony of one, who was sure of the game.
The count turned grave under that enigmatical smile. He saw he was playing an awkward part, and, feeling that she was laughing at him, he made heroic efforts to recover his equanimity.
The lady admired, and was more enthusiastic about the wood than anything. It was a mass of ancient oaks, where the sun never penetrated. The ground was carpeted with thick turf and quite free from caltrops. No other private property was so richly wooded; it was, perhaps, due to the primitive forest where the monastery had been founded which was the origin of Lancia.
The lady found it pleasant to rest a little under the green bower where the light hardly penetrated. A peace, a pleasant calmness sweeter than the silence and calm of a Gothic cathedral, pervaded the place. She leant her back against a tree and gave a long look at the thick foliage around her.
The count stood near. Both were silent for some time. At last the man felt, without seeing it, that the lady's gaze was fixed upon him. He resisted the magnetic attraction of the look for some minutes. When at last he raised his eyes, he saw that her expression was so merry and daring that he dropped them again. Amalia gave vent to a mischievous laugh, which surprised, confused, and somewhat irritated him; and then seeing that her merriment did not cease, he said with a forced smile:
"At what are you laughing, my friend?"
"Nothing, nothing," she returned, putting her handkerchief to her mouth. "Take me to see the house."
And then she took his arm again. The house was a large, very old building of yellowish stone, worm-eaten by age, with two little square towers at the sides. Everything about it was shabby or worn out. Some bars were wanting in the stair-rails as well as in the balconies; the ceilings of the rooms were discoloured, the partition walls cracked, the plaster in holes; the looking-glasses, so much thought of in bygone days, were so covered with dust that they reflected nothing; the walls were damp and dirty, and the pictures hung thereon were so discoloured that one could not see what the artists had intended to depict; the scanty furniture of the rooms was worn out by the use of past generations. The things were all quite done for. Amalia liked the look of past grandeur. How many different beings had lived in that house! How they must have laughed and wept in these large rooms. Each one had its particular name: one was called the cardinal's room, because in times past a cardinal of the family occupied it when on a visit to the Grange; another the portrait-room, because a few pictures hung on the walls; and another the new room, although it looked as old and even older than the rest of the apartments. Everything bore traces of the private life of a family of bygone ages.
"This is the countess's chamber," said Luis, as he took his friend into a moderate-sized room, which, in spite of the dust and ravages of time, looked better furnished than the others. It was an elegant style of apartment, bearing evidence that past generations had not been destitute of a love of decoration. There was a Pompadour escritoire, some chairs of the Regency, several pictures in pastel; and painted on the ceiling were cherubs floating in an atmosphere which had once been blue.
"Is this your mother's room?" asked Amalia.
"No," replied the count, smiling; "my mother sleeps on the other side. It has been called the countess's from time immemorial. Perhaps some old ancestor of mine chose it for herself. I often take my siesta here when the fatigue of going about the estate makes me want to have a sleep."
In one of the corners of the apartment there was a splendid bedstead of carved oak, grown black with age, one of those beds of the fifteenth century that antiquaries go perfectly mad on. The hangings were also very ancient, but there was a modern damask counterpane spread over the mattress.
"So it is here that you retire to think of me to your heart's content, is it not?" said Amalia.
The count looked as stunned as if she had given him a blow on the head.
"I! Amalia! How?"
Then with a sudden assumption of courage he exclaimed:
"Yes, yes, Amalia, you are quite right! I think of you here as, for some time past, I think of you everywhere I go. I do not know what has come to me: I live in a constant state of excitement, which, as you told me, is a sign of true love. I am in fact madly in love with you. I know that it is an atrocity, a crime, but I cannot help myself. Forgive me."
And, like one of his noble ancestors of the Middle Ages, the gentleman fell on his knees at the feet of the lady.
She was terribly angry at first. What? Was he not ashamed of such a confession? Did he not understand that it was an insult to address such words to her in his house? How could he suppose that she could quietly listen to such words? It seemed impossible that the Conde of Onis, such a perfect gentleman, could be so wanting in the respect due to a lady and to himself.
The count remained prostrate on his knees under such a storm of invectives. He knew his words had been of grave import, but the anger that they provoked in the lady was not what he had most feared.
At last Amalia was silent. She regarded him for some seconds with eyes blazing with fury, but a happy smile soon suffused her expressive face. She approached him with a slow, majestic step, put her hand upon his shoulder, and bending down to bring her lips to his ear, she said in a loud voice:
"You are quite right not to be ashamed of anything of this, for I love you at least as much as you love me."
Then the young man seemed to go mad with joy. The terror was over, and he clasped and kissed her knees in a frenzy of delight, breaking into a torrent of incoherent, passionate words, full of fire and truth; whilst she, so short and diminutive, gazed at the adoring Colossus with her mysterious Valencian eyes glowing with passion and love.
It was thus that the Conde of Onis accomplished the difficult task of winning the affections of the elegant Senora of Don Pedro Quinones de Leon.
The first months of their connection, fraught with poignant remorse and fascinating delight, were very agitating to the count. Amalia went occasionally to the Grange. At the social gathering in the evening she would give an account of her visit in a high-pitched voice; and he was in an agony of confusion, anxiety, and distress, whilst she with perfect sang froid told all that she could tell; spoke of the garden, scolded him for its state of neglect; and she amused herself with bringing home some plants every time she went there, so as to clear the ground, as he did not care for them; in short, her audacity became almost farcical.