The women came to show themselves, the men to see the women: some were attracted by curiosity to hear an orator so celebrated; some came, because they had no better means of employing their time till the play began; some, from being assured that it would be impossible to find places in the church; and one half of Madrid was brought thither by expecting to meet the other half. The only persons truly anxious to hear the preacher, were a few antiquated devotees, and half a dozen rival orators, determined to find fault with and ridicule the discourse. As to the remainder of the audience, the sermon might have been omitted altogether, certainly without their being disappointed, and very probably without their perceiving the omission.
Whatever was the occasion, it is at least certain, that the Capuchin church had never witnessed a more numerous assembly. Every corner was filled, every seat was occupied. The very statues which ornamented the long aisles were pressed into the service. Boys suspended themselves upon the wings of cherubims; St. Francis and St. Mark bore each a spectator on his shoulders; and St. Agatha found herself under the necessity of carrying double. The consequence was, that, in spite of all their hurry and expedition, our two newcomers, on entering the church, looked round in vain for places.
However, the old woman continued to move forwards. In vain were exclamations of displeasure vented against her from all sides: in vain was she addressed with–”I assure you, Segnora, there are no places here.” –”I beg, Segnora, that you will not crowd me so intolerably!” –’segnora, you cannot pass this way. Bless me! How can people be so troublesome!” –The old woman was obstinate, and on she went. By dint of perseverance and two brawny arms she made a passage through the crowd, and managed to bustle herself into the very body of the church, at no great distance from the pulpit. Her companion had followed her with timidity and in silence, profiting by the exertions of her conductress.
“Holy Virgin!” exclaimed the old woman in a tone of disappointment, while she threw a glance of enquiry round her; “Holy Virgin! what heat! what a crowd! I wonder what can be the meaning of all this. I believe we must return: there is no such thing as a seat to be had, and nobody seems kind enough to accommodate us with theirs.”
This broad hint attracted the notice of two cavaliers, who occupied stools on the right hand, and were leaning their backs against the seventh column from the pulpit. Both were young, and richly habited. Hearing this appeal to their politeness pronounced in a female voice, they interrupted their conversation to look at the speaker. She had thrown up her veil in order to take a clearer look round the cathedral. Her hair was red, and she squinted. The cavaliers turned round, and renewed their conversation.
“By all means,” replied the old woman’s companion; “by all means, Leonella, let us return home immediately; the heat is excessive, and I am terrified at such a crowd.”
These words were pronounced in a tone of unexampled sweetness. The cavaliers again broke off their discourse, but for this time they were not contented with looking up: both started involuntarily from their seats, and turned themselves towards the speaker.
The voice came from a female, the delicacy and elegance of whose figure inspired the youths with the most lively curiosity to view the face to which it belonged. This satisfaction was denied them. Her features were hidden by a thick veil; but struggling through the crowd had deranged it sufficiently to discover a neck which for symmetry and beauty might have vied with the Medicean Venus. It was of the most dazzling whiteness, and received additional charms from being shaded by the tresses of her long fair hair, which descended in ringlets to her waist. Her figure was rather below than above the middle size: it was light and airy as that of an Hamadryad. Her bosom was carefully veiled. Her dress was white; it was fastened by a blue sash, and just permitted to peep out from under it a little foot of the most delicate proportions. A chaplet of large grains hung upon her arm, and her face was covered with a veil of thick black gauze. Such was the female, to whom the youngest of the cavaliers now offered his seat, while the other thought it necessary to pay the same attention to her companion.
The old lady with many expressions of gratitude, but without much difficulty, accepted the offer, and seated herself: the young one followed her example, but made no other compliment than a simple and graceful reverence. Don Lorenzo (such was the cavalier’s name, whose seat she had accepted) placed himself near her; but first he whispered a few words in his friend’s ear, who immediately took the hint, and endeavoured to draw off the old woman’s attention from her lovely charge.
“You are doubtless lately arrived at Madrid,” said Lorenzo to his fair neighbour; “it is impossible that such charms should have long remained unobserved; and had not this been your first public appearance, the envy of the women and adoration of the men would have rendered you already sufficiently remarkable.”
He paused, in expectation of an answer. As his speech did not absolutely require one, the lady did not open her lips: After a few moments he resumed his discourse:
“Am I wrong in supposing you to be a stranger to Madrid?”
The lady hesitated; and at last, in so low a voice as to be scarcely intelligible, she made shift to answer,–”No, Segnor.”
‘do you intend making a stay of any length?”
“I should esteem myself fortunate, were it in my power to contribute to making your abode agreeable. I am well known at Madrid, and my family has some interest at court. If I can be of any service, you cannot honour or oblige me more than by permitting me to be of use to you.” –’surely,” said he to himself, ‘she cannot answer that by a monosyllable; now she must say something to me.”
Lorenzo was deceived, for the lady answered only by a bow.
By this time he had discovered, that his neighbour was not very conversible; but whether her silence proceeded from pride, discretion, timidity, or idiotism, he was still unable to decide.
After a pause of some minutes–”It is certainly from your being a stranger,” said he, “and as yet unacquainted with our customs, that you continue to wear your veil. Permit me to remove it.”
At the same time he advanced his hand towards the gauze: the lady raised hers to prevent him.
“I never unveil in public, Segnor.”
“And where is the harm, I pray you?” interrupted her companion somewhat sharply. ‘do not you see, that the other ladies have all laid their veils aside, to do honour no doubt to the holy place in which we are? I have taken off mine already; and surely, if I expose my features to general observation, you have no cause to put yourself in such a wonderful alarm! Blessed Maria! Here is a fuss and a bustle about a chit’s face! Come, come, child! Uncover it! I warrant you that nobody will run away with it from you–––”
‘dear aunt, it is not the custom in Murcia–––”
‘murcia, indeed! Holy St. Barbara, what does that signify? You are always putting me in mind of that villanous province. If it is the custom in Madrid, that is all that we ought to mind; and therefore I desire you to take off your veil immediately. Obey me this moment, Antonia, for you know that I cannot bear contradiction.”
Her niece was silent, but made no further opposition to Don Lorenzo’s efforts, who, armed with the aunt’s sanction, hastened to remove the gauze. What a seraph’s head presented itself to his admiration! Yet it was rather bewitching than beautiful; it was not so lovely from regularity of features, as from sweetness and sensibility of countenance. The several parts of her face considered separately, many of them were far from handsome; but, when examined together, the whole was adorable. Her skin, though fair, was not entirely without freckles; her eyes were not very large, nor their lashes particularly long. But then her lips were of the most rosy freshness; her fair and undulating hair, confined by a simple ribband, poured itself below her waist in a profusion of ringlets; her neck was full and beautiful in the extreme; her hand and arm were formed with the most perfect symmetry; her mild blue eyes seemed an heaven of sweetness, and the crystal in which they moved sparkled with all the brilliance of diamonds. She appeared to be scarcely fifteen; an arch smile, playing round her mouth, declared her to be possessed of liveliness, which excess of timidity at present repressed. She looked round her with a bashful glance; and whenever her eyes accidentally met Lorenzo’s, she dropped them hastily upon her rosary; her cheek was immediately suffused with blushes, and she began to tell her beads; though her manner evidently showed that she knew not what she was about.
Lorenzo gazed upon her with mingled surprise and admiration; but the aunt thought it necessary to apologize for Antonia’s mauvaise honte.
“”Tis a young creature,” said she, “who is totally ignorant of the world. She has been brought up in an old castle in Murcia, with no other society than her mother’s, who, God help her! has no more sense, good soul, than is necessary to carry her soup to her mouth. Yet she is my own sister, both by father and mother.”
“And has so little sense?” said Don Christoval with feigned astonishment. “How very extraordinary!”
‘very true, Segnor. Is it not strange? However, such is the fact; and yet only to see the luck of some people! A young nobleman, of the very first quality, took it into his head that Elvira had some pretensions to beauty.–As to pretensions, in truth she had always enough of them; but as to beauty!–If I had only taken half the pains to set myself off which she did!–But this is neither here nor there. As I was saying, Segnor, a young nobleman fell in love with her, and married her unknown to his father. Their union remained a secret near three years; but at last it came to the ears of the old marquis, who, as you may well suppose, was not much pleased with the intelligence. Away he posted in all haste to Cordova, determined to seize Elvira, and send her away to some place or other, where she would never be heard of more. Holy St. Paul! How he stormed on finding that she had escaped him, had joined her husband, and that they had embarked together for the Indies! He swore at us all, as if the evil spirit had possessed him; he threw my father into prison–as honest a pains-taking shoe-maker as any in Cordova; and when he went away, he had the cruelty to take from us my sister’s little boy, then scarcely two years old, and whom in the abruptness of her flight she had been obliged to leave behind her. I suppose that the poor little wretch met with bitter bad treatment from him, for in a few months after we received intelligence of his death.”
“Why, this was a most terrible old fellow, Segnora!”
“Oh! shocking! and a man so totally devoid of taste! Why, would you believe it, Segnor? when I attempted to pacify him, he cursed me for a witch, and wished that, to punish the count, my sister might become as ugly as myself! Ugly indeed! I like him for that.”
“Ridiculous!” cried Don Christoval. ‘doubtless the count would have thought himself fortunate, had he been permitted to exchange the one sister for the other.”
“Oh! Christ! Segnor, you are really too polite. However, I am heartily glad that the cond” was of a different way of thinking. A mighty pretty piece of business, to be sure, Elvira has made of it! After broiling and stewing in the Indies for thirteen long years, her husband dies, and she returns to Spain, without an house to hide her head, or money to procure her one! This Antonia was then but an infant, and her only remaining child. She found that her father-in-law had married again, that he was irreconcilable to the cond”, and that his second wife had produced him a son, who is reported to be a very fine young man. The old marquis refused to see my sister or her child; but sent her word that, on condition of never hearing any more of her, he would assign her a small pension, and she might live in an old castle which he possessed in Murcia. This had been the favourite habitation of his eldest son; but, since his flight from Spain, the old marquis could not bear the place, but let it fall to ruin and confusion.–My sister accepted the proposal; she retired to Murcia, and has remained there till within the last month.”
“And what brings her now to Madrid?” enquired Don Lorenzo, whom admiration of the young Antonia compelled to take a lively interest in the talkative old woman’s narration.
“Alas! Segnor, her father-in-law being lately dead, the steward of his Murcian estates has refused to pay her pension any longer. With the design of supplicating his son to renew it, she is now come to Madrid; but I doubt that she might have saved herself the trouble. You young noblemen have always enough to do with your money, and are not very often disposed to throw it away upon old women. I advised my sister to send Antonia with her petition; but she would not hear of such a thing. She is so obstinate! Well! she will find herself the worse for not following my counsels: the girl has a good pretty face, and possibly might have done much.”
“Ah, Segnora!” interrupted Don Christoval, counterfeiting a passionate air; “if a pretty face will do the business, why has not your sister recourse to you?”
“Oh! Jesus! my lord, I swear you quite overpower me with your gallantry! But I promise you that I am too well aware of the danger of such expeditions to trust myself in a young nobleman’s power! No, no; I have as yet preserved my reputation without blemish or reproach, and I always knew how to keep the men at a proper distance.”
“Of that, Segnora, I have not the least doubt. But permit me to ask you, Have you then any aversion to matrimony?”
“That is an home question. I cannot but confess, that if an amiable cavalier was to present himself––”
Here she intended to throw a tender and significant look upon Don Christoval; but, as she unluckily happened to squint most abominably, the glance fell directly upon his companion. Lorenzo took the compliment to himself, and answered it by a profound bow.
‘may I enquire,” said he, “the name of the marquis?”
“The marquis de las Cisternas.”
“I know him intimately well. He is not at present in Madrid, but is expected here daily. He is one of the best of men; and if the lovely Antonia will permit me to be her advocate with him, I doubt not my being able to make a favourable report of her cause.”
Antonia raised her blue eyes, and silently thanked him for the offer by a smile of inexpressible sweetness. Leonella’s satisfaction was much more loud and audible. Indeed, as her niece was generally silent in her company, she thought it incumbent upon her to talk enough for both: this she managed without difficulty, for she very seldom found herself deficient in words.
“Oh, Segnor!” she cried; “you will lay our whole family under the most signal obligations! I accept your offer with all possible gratitude, and return you a thousand thanks for the generosity of your proposal. Antonia, why do not you speak, child? While the cavalier says all sorts of civil things to you, you sit like a statue, and never utter a syllable of thanks, either bad, good, or indifferent!–”
‘my dear aunt, I am very sensible that–––”
“Fye, niece! How often have I told you, that you never should interrupt a person who is speaking! When did you ever know me do such a thing? Are these your Murcian manners? Mercy on me! I shall never be able to make this girl any thing like a person of good breeding. But pray, Segnor,” she continued, addressing herself to Don Christoval, “inform me, why such a crowd is assembled to-day in this cathedral.”
“Can you possibly be ignorant, that Ambrosio, abbot of this monastery, pronounces a sermon in this church every Thursday? All Madrid rings with his praises. As yet he has preached but thrice; but all who have heard him are so delighted with his eloquence, that it is as difficult to obtain a place at church, as at the first representation of a new comedy. His fame certainly must have reached your ears?”
“Alas! Segnor, till yesterday I never had the good fortune to see Madrid; and at Cordova we are so little informed of what is passing in the rest of the world, that the name of Ambrosio has never been mentioned in its precincts.”
“You will find it in every one’s mouth at Madrid. He seems to have fascinated the inhabitants; and, not having attended his sermons myself, I am astonished at the enthusiasm which he has excited. The adoration paid him both by young and old, by man and woman, is unexampled. The grandees load him with presents; their wives refuse to have any other confessor; and he is known through all the city by the name of The Man of Holiness.”
“Undoubtedly, Segnor, he is of noble origin?”
“That point still remains undecided. The late superior of the Capuchins found him while yet an infant at the abbeydoor. All attempts to discover who had left him there were vain, and the child himself could give no account of his parents. He was educated in the monastery, where he has remained ever since. He early showed a strong inclination for study and retirement; and as soon as he was of a proper age, he pronounced his vows. No one has ever appeared to claim him, or clear up the mystery which conceals his birth; and the monks, who find their account in the favour which is shewn to their establishment from respect to him, have not hesitated to publish, that he is a present to them from the Virgin. In truth, the singular austerity of his life gives some countenance to the report. He is now thirty years old, every hour of which period has been passed in study, total seclusion from the world, and mortification of the flesh. Till these last three weeks, when he was chosen superior of the society to which he belongs, he had never been on the outside of the abbey-walls. Even now he never quits them except on Thursdays, when he delivers a discourse in this cathedral, which all Madrid assembles to hear. His knowledge is said to be the most profound, his eloquence the most persuasive. In the whole course of his life he has never been known to transgress a single rule of his order; the smallest stain is not to be discovered upon his character; and he is reported to be so strict an observer of chastity, that he knows not in what consists the difference of man and woman. The common people therefore esteem him to be a saint.”
‘does that make a saint?” enquired Antonia. “Bless me! then am I one.”
“Holy St. Barbara!” exclaimed Leonella, “what a question! Fye, child, fye! these are not fit subjects for young women to handle. You should not seem to remember that there is such a thing as a man in the world, and you ought to imagine every body to be of the same sex with yourself. I should like to see you give people to understand, that you know that a man has no breasts, and no hips, and no––––”
Luckily for Antonia’s ignorance, which her aunt’s lecture would soon have dispelled, an universal murmur through the church announced the preacher’s arrival. Donna Leonella rose from her seat to take a better view of him, and Antonia followed her example.
He was a man of noble port and commanding presence. His stature was lofty, and his features uncommonly handsome. His nose was aquiline, his eyes large, black and sparkling, and his dark brows almost joined together. His complexion was of a deep but clear brown; study and watching had entirely deprived his cheek of colour. Tranquillity reigned upon his smooth unwrinkled forehead; and content, expressed upon every feature, seemed to announce the man equally unacquainted with cares and crimes. He bowed himself with humility to the audience. Still there was a certain severity in his look and manner that inspired universal awe, and few could sustain the glance of his eye, at once fiery and penetrating. Such was Ambrosio, abbot of the Capuchins, and surnamed “The Man of Holiness.”
Antonia, while she gazed upon him eagerly, felt a pleasure fluttering in her bosom which till then had been unknown to her, and for which she in vain endeavoured to account. She waited with impatience till the sermon should begin; and when at length the friar spoke, the sound of his voice seemed to penetrate into her very soul. Though no other of the spectators felt such violent sensations as did the young Antonia, yet every one listened with interest and emotion. They who were insensible to religion’s merits, were still enchanted with Ambrosio’s oratory. All found their attention irresistibly attracted while he spoke, and the most profound silence reigned through the crowded aisles. Even Lorenzo could not resist the charm: he forgot that Antonia was seated near him, and listened to the preacher with undivided attention.
In language nervous, clear, and simple, the monk expatiated on the beauties of religion. He explained some abstruse parts of the sacred writings in a style that carried with it universal conviction. His voice, at once distinct and deep, was fraught with all the terrors of the tempest, while he inveighed against the vices of humanity, and described the punishments reserved for them in a future state. Every hearer looked back upon his past offences, and trembled: the thunder seemed to roll, whose bolt was destined to crush him, and the abyss of eternal destruction to open before his feet! But when Ambrosio, changing his theme, spoke of the excellence of an unsullied conscience, of the glorious prospect which eternity presented to the soul untainted with reproach, and of the recompense which awaited it in the regions of everlasting glory, his auditors felt their scattered spirits insensibly return. They threw themselves with confidence upon the mercy of their judge; they hung with delight upon the consoling words of the preacher; and while his full voice swelled into melody, they were transported to those happy regions which he painted to their imaginations in colours so brilliant and glowing.
The discourse was of considerable length: yet, when it concluded, the audience grieved that it had not lasted longer. Though the monk had ceased to speak, enthusiastic silence still prevailed through the church. At length the charm gradually dissolving, the general admiration was expressed in audible terms. As Ambrosio descended from the pulpit, his auditors crowded round him, loaded him with blessings, threw themselves at his feet, and kissed the hem of his garment. He passed on slowly, with his hands crossed devoutly upon his bosom, to the door opening into the abbey-chapel, at which his monks waited to receive him. He ascended the steps, and then, turning towards his followers, addressed to them a few words of gratitude and exhortation. While he spoke, his rosary, composed of large grains of amber, fell from his hand, and dropped among the surrounding multitude. It was seized eagerly, and immediately divided amidst the spectators. Whoever became possessor of a bead, preserved it as a sacred relique; and had it been the chaplet of thrice-blessed St. Francis himself, it could not have been disputed with greater vivacity. The abbot, smiling at their eagerness, pronounced his benediction and quitted the church, while humility dwelt upon every feature. Dwelt she also in his heart?
Antonia’s eyes followed him with anxiety. As the door closed after him, it seemed to her as she had lost some one essential to her happiness. A tear stole in silence down her cheek.
“He is separated from the world!” said she to herself; “perhaps, I shall never see him more!”
As she wiped away the tear, Lorenzo observed her action.
“Are you satisfied with our orator?” said he; “or do you think that Madrid over-rates his talents?”
Antonia’s heart was so filled with admiration for the monk, that she eagerly seized the opportunity of speaking of him: besides, as she now no longer considered Lorenzo as an absolute stranger, she was less embarrassed by her excessive timidity.
“Oh! he far exceeds all my expectations,” answered she; “till this moment I had no idea of the powers of eloquence. But when he spoke, his voice inspired me with such interest, such esteem, I might almost say such affection for him, that I am myself astonished at the acuteness of my feelings.”
Lorenzo smiled at the strength of her expressions.
“You are young, and just entering into life,” said he: “your heart, new to the world, and full of warmth and sensibility, receives its first impressions with eagerness. Artless yourself, you suspect not others of deceit; and viewing the world through the medium of your own truth and innocence, you fancy all who surround you to deserve your confidence and esteem. What pity, that these gay visions must soon be dissipated! What pity, that you must soon discover the baseness of mankind, and guard against your fellow-creatures as against your foes!”
“Alas! Segnor,” replied Antonia, “the misfortunes of my parents have already placed before me but too many sad examples of the perfidy of the world! Yet surely in the present instance the warmth of sympathy cannot have deceived me.”
“In the present instance, I allow that it has not. Ambrosio’s character is perfectly without reproach; and a man who has passed the whole of his life within the walls of a convent, cannot have found the opportunity to be guilty, even were he possessed of the inclination. But now, when, obliged by the duties of his situation, he must enter occasionally into the world, and be thrown into the way of temptation, it is now that it behoves him to show the brilliance of his virtue. The trial is dangerous; he is just at that period of life when the passions are most vigorous, unbridled, and despotic; his established reputation will mark him out to seduction as an illustrious victim; novelty will give additional charms to the allurements of pleasure; and even the talents with which nature has endowed him will contribute to his ruin, by facilitating the means of obtaining his object. Very few would return victorious from a contest so severe.”
“Ah! surely Ambrosio will be one of those few.”
“Of that I have myself no doubt: by all accounts he is an exception to mankind in general, and envy would seek in vain for a blot upon his character.”
‘segnor, you delight me by this assurance! It encourages me to indulge my prepossession in his favour; and you know not with what pain I should have repressed the sentiment! Ah! dearest aunt, entreat my mother to choose him for our confessor.”
“I entreat her?” replied Leonella; “I promise you that I shall do no such thing. I do not like this same Ambrosio in the least; he has a look of severity about him that made me tremble from head to foot. Were he my confessor, I should never have the courage to avow one half of my peccadilloes, and then I should be in a rare condition! I never saw such a stern-looking mortal, and hope that I never shall see such another. His description of the devil, God bless us! almost terrified me out of my wits, and when he spoke about sinners he seemed as if he was ready to eat them.”
“You are right, Segnora,” answered Don Christoval. “Too great severity is said to be Ambrosio’s only fault. Exempted himself from human failings, he is not sufficiently indulgent to those of others; and though strictly just and disinterested in his decisions, his government of the monks has already shown some proofs of his inflexibility. But the crowd is nearly dissipated: will you permit us to attend you home?”
“O Christ! Segnor,” exclaimed Leonella affecting to blush; “I would not suffer such a thing for the universe! If I came home attended by so gallant a cavalier, my sister is so scrupulous that she would read me an hour’s lecture, and I should never hear the last of it. Besides, I rather wish you not to make your proposals just at present.–––”
‘my proposals? I assure you, Segnora.”
“Oh! Segnor, I believe that your assurances of impatience are all very true; but really I must desire a little respite. It would not be quite so delicate in me to accept your hand at first sight.”
“Accept my hand? As I hope to live and breathe–––”
“Oh! dear Segnor, press me no further if you love me! I shall consider your obedience as a proof of your affection; you shall hear from me to-morrow, and so farewell. But pray, cavaliers, may I not enquire your names?”
‘my friend’s,” replied Lorenzo, “is the Cond” d”Ossorio, and mine Lorenzo de Medina.”
“”Tis sufficient. Well, Don Lorenzo, I shall acquaint my sister with your obliging offer, and let you know the result with all expedition. Where may I send to you?”
“I am always to be found at the Medina palace.”
“You may depend upon hearing from me. Farewell, cavaliers. Segnor Cond”, let me entreat you to moderate the excessive ardour of your passion. However, to prove that I am not displeased with you, and prevent your abandoning yourself to despair, receive this mark of my affection, and sometimes bestow a thought upon the absent Leonella.”
As she said this, she extended a lean and wrinkled hand; which her supposed admirer kissed with such sorry grace and constraint so evident, that Lorenzo with difficulty repressed his inclination to laugh. Leonella then hastened to quit the church: the lovely Antonia followed her in silence; but when she reached the porch, she turned involuntarily, and cast back her eyes towards Lorenzo. He bowed to her, as bidding her farewell; she returned the compliment, and hastily withdrew.
‘so, Lorenzo!” said Don Christoval as soon as they were alone, “you have procured me an agreeable intrigue! To favour your designs upon Antonia, I obligingly make a few civil speeches which mean nothing to the aunt, and at the end of an hour I find myself upon the brink of matrimony! How will you reward me for having suffered so grievously for your sake? What can repay me for having kissed the leathern paw of that confounded old witch? Diavolo! She has left such a scent upon my lips, that I shall smell of garlick for this month to come! As I pass along the Prado, I shall be taken for a walking omelet, or some large onion running to seed!”
“I confess, my poor count,” replied Lorenzo, “that your service has been attended with danger; yet am I so far from supposing it to be past all endurance, that I shall probably solicit you to carry on your amours still further.”
“From that petition I conclude, that the little Antonia has made some impression upon you.”
“I cannot express to you how much I am charmed with her. Since my father’s death, my uncle the duke de Medina has signified to me his wishes to see me married; I have till now eluded his hints, and refused to understand them; but what I have seen this evening––––”
“Well, what have you seen this evening? Why surely, Don Lorenzo, you cannot be mad enough to think of making a wife out of this grand-daughter of “as honest a pains-taking shoemaker as any in Cordova”?”
“You forget, that she is also the grand-daughter of the late marquis de las Cisternas; but without disputing about birth and titles, I must assure you, that I never beheld a woman so interesting as Antonia.”
‘very possibly; but you cannot mean to marry her?”
“Why not, my dear cond”? I shall have wealth enough for both of us, and you know that my uncle thinks liberally upon the subject. From what I have seen of Raymond de las Cisternas, I am certain that he will readily acknowledge Antonia for his niece. Her birth therefore will be no objection to my offering her my hand. I should be a villain, could I think of her on any other terms than marriage; and in truth she seems possessed of every quality requisite to make me happy in a wife–young, lovely, gentle, sensible–––”
‘sensible? Why, she said nothing but Yes, and No.”
‘she did not say much more, I must confess–but then she always said Yes or No in the right place.”
‘did she so? Oh! your most obedient! That is using a right lover’s argument, and I dare dispute no longer with so profound a casuist. Suppose we adjourn to the comedy?”
“It is out of my power. I only arrived last night at Madrid, and have not yet had an opportunity of seeing my sister. You know that her convent is in this street, and I was going thither when the crowd which I saw thronging into this church excited my curiosity to know what was the matter. I shall now pursue my first intention, and probably pass the evening with my sister at the parlour-grate.”
“Your sister in a convent, say you? Oh! very true, I had forgotten. And how does Donna Agnes? I am amazed, Don Lorenzo, how you could possibly think of immuring so charming a girl within the walls of a cloister!”
“I think of it, Don Christoval? How can you suspect me of such barbarity? You are conscious that she took the veil by her own desire, and that particular circumstances made her wish for a seclusion from the world. I used every means in my power to induce her to change her resolution; the endeavour was fruitless, and I lost a sister!”
“The luckier fellow you: I think, Lorenzo, you were a considerable gainer by that loss; if I remember right, Donna Agnes had a portion of ten thousand pistoles, half of which reverted to your lordship. By St. Jago! I wish that I had fifty sisters in the same predicament: I should consent to losing them every soul without much heartburning.”
“How, cond”?” said Lorenzo in an angry voice; ‘do you suppose me base enough to have influenced my sister’s retirement? do you suppose that the despicable wish to make my self master of her fortune could–––”
“Admirable! Courage, Don Lorenzo! Now the man is all in a blaze. God grant that Antonia may soften that fiery temper, or we shall certainly cut each other’s throat before the month is over! However, to prevent such a tragical catastrophe for the present, I shall make a retreat, and leave you master of the field. Farewell, my knight of Mount ALtnal Moderate that inflammable disposition, and remember that, whenever it is necessary to make love to yonder harridan, you may reckon upon my services.”
He said, and darted out of the cathedral.
“How wild-brained!” said Lorenzo. “With so excellent an heart, what pity that he possesses so little solidity of judgment!”
The night was now fast advancing. The lamps were not yet lighted. The faint beams of the rising moon scarcely could pierce through the gothic obscurity of the church. Lorenzo found himself unable to quit the spot. The void left in his bosom by Antonia’s absence, and his sister’s sacrifice which Don Christoval had just recalled to his imagination, created that melancholy of mind, which accorded but too well with the religious gloom surrounding him. He was still leaning against the seventh column from the pulpit. A soft and cooling air breathed along the solitary aisles; the moon-beams darting into the church through painted windows, tinged the fretted roofs and massy pillars with a thousand various shades of light and colours. Universal silence prevailed around, only interrupted by the occasional closing of doors in the adjoining abbey.
The calm of the hour and solitude of the place contributed to nourish Lorenzo’s disposition to melancholy. He threw himself upon a seat which stood near him, and abandoned himself to the delusions of his fancy. He thought of his union with Antonia; he thought of the obstacles which might oppose his wishes; and a thousand changing visions floated before his fancy, sad “tis true, but not unpleasing. Sleep insensibly stole over him, and the tranquil solemnity of his mind when awake, for a while continued to influence his slumbers.
He still fancied himself to be in the church of the Capuchins; but it was no longer dark and solitary. Multitudes of silver lamps shed splendour from the vaulted roofs; accompanied by the captivating chaunt of distant choristers, the organ’s melody swelled through the church; the altar seemed decorated as for some distinguished feast; it was surrounded by a brilliant company; and near it stood Antonia arrayed in bridal white, and blushing with all the charms of virgin modesty.
Half hoping, half fearing, Lorenzo gazed upon the scene before him. Suddenly the door leading to the abbey unclosed; and he saw, attended by a long train of monks, the preacher advance to whom he had just listened with so much admiration. He drew near Antonia.
“And where is the bridegroom?” said the imaginary friar.
Antonia seemed to look round the church with anxiety. Involuntarily the youth advanced a few steps from his concealment. She saw him; the blush of pleasure glowed upon her cheek; with a graceful motion of her hand she beckoned to him to advance. He disobeyed not the command; he flew towards her, and threw himself at her feet.
She retreated for a moment; then gazing upon him with unutterable delight, “Yes,” she exclaimed, ‘my bridegroom! my destined bridegroom!”
She said, and hastened to throw herself into his arms; but before he had time to receive her, an unknown rushed between them: his form was gigantic; his complexion was swarthy, his eyes fierce and terrible; his mouth breathed out volumes of fire, and on his forehead was written in legible characters–”Pride! Lust! Inhumanity!”
Antonia shrieked. The monster clasped her in his arms, and, springing with her upon the altar, tortured her with his odious caresses. She endeavoured in vain to escape from his embrace. Lorenzo flew to her succour; but, ere he had time to reach her, a loud burst of thunder was heard. Instantly the cathedral seemed crumbling into pieces; the monks betook themselves to flight, shrieking fearfully; the lamps were extinguished, the altar sunk down, and in its place appeared an abyss vomiting forth clouds of flame. Uttering a loud and terrible cry the monster plunged into the gulph, and in his fall attempted to drag Antonia with him. He strove in vain. Animated by supernatural powers, she disengaged herself from his embrace; but her white robe was left in his possession. Instantly a wing of brilliant splendour spread itself from either of Antonia’s arms. She darted upwards, and while ascending cried to Lorenzo, “Friend! we shall meet above!”
At the same moment the roof of the cathedral opened; harmonious voices pealed along the vaults; and the glory into which Antonia was received, was composed of rays of such dazzling brightness, that Lorenzo was unable to sustain the gaze. His sight failed, and he sunk upon the ground.
When he awoke he found himself extended upon the pavement of the church: it was illuminated, and the chaunt of hymns sounded from a distance. For a while Lorenzo could not persuade himself that what he had just witnessed had been a dream, so strong an impression had it made upon his fancy. A little recollection convinced him of its fallacy: the lamps had been lighted during his sleep, and the music which he heard was occasioned by the monks, who were celebrating their vespers in the abbey-chapel.
Lorenzo rose, and prepared to bend his steps towards his sister’s convent; his mind fully occupied by the singularity of his dream. He already drew near the porch, when his attention was attracted by perceiving a shadow moving upon the opposite wall. He looked curiously round, and soon descried a man wrapped up in his cloak, who seemed carefully examining whether his actions were observed. Very few people are exempt from the influence of curiosity. The unknown seemed anxious to conceal his business in the cathedral; and it was this very circumstance which made Lorenzo wish to discover what he was about.
Our hero was conscious that he had no right to pry into the secrets of this unknown cavalier.
“I will go,” said Lorenzo. And Lorenzo stayed where he was.
The shadow thrown by the column effectually concealed him from the stranger, who continued to advance with caution. At length he drew a letter from beneath his cloak, and hastily placed it beneath a colossal statue of St. Francis. Then retiring with precipitation, he concealed himself in a part of the church at a considerable distance from that in which the image stood.
‘so!” said Lorenzo to himself; “this is only some foolish love affair. I believe, I may as well be gone, for I can do no good in it.”
In truth, till that moment it never came into his head that he could do any good in it; but he thought it necessary to make some little excuse to himself for having indulged his curiosity. He now made a second attempt to retire from the church. For this time he gained the porch without meeting with any impediment; but it was destined that he should pay it another visit that night. As he descended the steps leading into the street, a cavalier rushed against him with such violence, that both were nearly overturned by the concussion. Lorenzo put his hand to his sword.
“How now, Segnor?” said he; “what mean you by this rudeness?”
“Ha! is it you, Medina?” replied the new comer, whom Lorenzo by his voice now recognized for Don Christoval. “You are the luckiest fellow in the universe, not to have left the church before my return. In, in! my dear lad! they will be here immediately!”
“Who will be here?”
“The old hen and all her pretty little chickens. In, I say; and then you shall know the whole history.”
Lorenzo followed him into the cathedral, and they concealed themselves behind the statue of St. Francis.
“And now,” said our hero, ‘may I take the liberty of asking what is the meaning of all this haste and rapture?”
“Oh! Lorenzo, we shall see such a glorious sight! The prioress of St. Clare and her whole train of nuns are coming hither. You are to know, that the pious father Ambrosio [the Lord reward him for it!] will upon no account move out of his own precincts. It being absolutely necessary for every fashionable convent to have him for its confessor, the nuns are in consequence obliged to visit him at the abbey; since, when the mountain will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet must needs go to the mountain. Now the prioress of St. Clare, the better to escape the gaze of such impure eyes as belong to yourself and your humble servant, thinks proper to bring her holy flock to confession in the dusk: she is to be admitted into the abbey-chapel by yon private door. The porteress of St. Clare, who is a worthy old soul and a particular friend of mine, has just assured me of their being here in a few moments. There is news for you, you rogue! We shall see some of the prettiest faces in Madrid!”
“In truth, Christoval, we shall do no such thing. The nuns are always veiled.”
“No! no! I know better. On entering a place of worship, they ever take off their veils, from respect to the saint to whom “tis dedicated. But hark, they are coming! Silence! silence! Observe, and be convinced.”
“Good!” said Lorenzo to himself; “I may possibly discover to whom the vows are addressed of this mysterious stranger.”
Scarcely had Don Christoval ceased to speak, when the domina of St. Clare appeared, followed by a long procession of nuns. Each upon entering the church took off her veil. The prioress crossed her hands upon her bosom, and made a profound reverence as she passed the statue of St Francis, the patron of this cathedral. The nuns followed her example, and several moved onwards without having satisfied Lorenzo’s curiosity. He almost began to despair of seeing the mystery cleared up, when, in paying her respects to St. Francis, one of the nuns happened to drop her rosary. As she stooped to pick it up the light flashed full in her face. At the same moment she dexterously removed the letter from beneath the image, placed it in her bosom, and hastened to resume her rank in the procession.
“Ha!” said Christoval in a low voice, “here we have some little intrigue, no doubt.”
“Agnes, by heaven!” cried Lorenzo.
“What, your sister? Diavolo! Then somebody, I suppose, will have to pay for our peeping.”
“And shall pay for it without delay,” replied the incensed brother.
The pious procession had now entered the abbey; the door was already closed upon it. The unknown immediately quitted his concealment, and hastened to leave the church: ere he could effect his intention, he descried Medina stationed in his passage. The stranger hastily retreated, and drew his hat over his eyes.
“Attempt not to fly me!” exclaimed Lorenzo; “I will know who you are, and what were the contents of that letter.”
“Of that letter?” repeated the unknown. “And by what title do you ask the question?”
“By a title of which I am now ashamed; but it becomes not you to question me. Either reply circumstantially to my demands, or answer me with your sword.”
“The latter method will be the shortest,” rejoined the other, drawing his rapier; “come on, Segnor Bravo! I am ready.”
Burning with rage, Lorenzo hastened to the attack: the antagonists had already exchanged several passes, before Christoval, who at that moment had more sense than either of them, could throw himself between their weapons.
“Hold! hold! Medina!” he exclaimed; ‘remember the consequences of shedding blood on consecrated ground!”
The stranger immediately dropped his sword.
‘medina?” he cried. “Great God, is it possible! Lorenzo, have you quite forgotten Raymond de las Cisternas?”
Lorenzo’s astonishment increased with every succeeding moment. Raymond advanced towards him; but with a look of suspicion he drew back his hand, which the other was preparing to take.
“You here, Marquis? What is the meaning of all this? You engaged in a clandestine correspondence with my sister, whose affections––”
“Have ever been, and still are mine. But this is no fit place for an explanation. Accompany me to my hotel, and you shall know every thing. Who is that with you?”
“One whom I believe you to have seen before,” replied Don Christoval, “though probably not at church.”
“The cond” d”Ossorio?”
“Exactly so, marquis.”
“I have no objection to entrusting you with my secret, for I am sure that I may depend upon your silence.”
“Then your opinion of me is better than my own, and therefore I must beg leave to decline your confidence. Do you go your own way, and I shall go mine. Marquis, where are you to be found?”
“As usual, at the hotel de las Cisternas; but remember that I am incognito, and that, if you wish to see me, you must ask for Alphonso d”Alvarada.”
“Good! good! Farewell, cavaliers!” said Don Christoval, and instantly departed.
“You, marquis,” said Lorenzo in the accent of surprise; “you, Alphonso d”Alvarada?”
“Even so, Lorenzo: but unless you have already heard my story from your sister, I have much to relate that will astonish you. Follow me, therefore, to my hotel without delay.”
At this moment the porter of the Capuchins entered the cathedral to lock up the doors for the night. The two noblemen instantly withdrew, and hastened with all speed to the palace de las Cisternas.