CH. XI. -- Continuation of Scipio's story.
As long as I had money in my purse, my landlord was cap in hand; but the moment he began to suspect that the funds were low, he became high and mighty, picked a German quarrel with me, and one morning, before breakfast, begged it as a favour of me to march out of his house. I followed his counsel as proudly as you please, and betook me to a church belonging to the fathers of St Dominic, where, while mass was performing, an old beggar accosted me on the usual topic of alms. I dropped some small change into his hat, which was truly the orphan's mite, saying at the same time: My friend, remember in your prayers to mention a situation for me; if your petition is heard with favour, it shall be all the better for you; hearty thanks, and a handsome poundage!
At these words, the beggar surveyed me up and down from head to foot, and answered in a grave tone: What place would you wish to have? I should like, replied I, to be footman in some family where I should do well. He inquired whether the matter pressed. With all possible importunity, said I, for unless I have the good luck to get settled very soon, the alternative will be horrible; death by the gripe of absolute famine, or a livelihood in the ranks of your fraternity. If the latter were, after all, to be your lot, resumed he, it certainly would be rather hard upon you, who have not been brought up to our habits of life; but, with a little use and practice, you would prefer our condition to service, which, partiality apart, is far less respectable than the beggar's vocation. Nevertheless, since you like a menial occupation better than leading a free and independent life like me, you shall have a berth without more ado. Mean as my appearance, is, you must not measure my power by it. Meet me here at the same hour to-morrow.
I took care to keep the appointment. Though at the spot before the time, I had not long to wait before the beggar joined me, and told me to follow him. I did so. He led me to a cellar not far from the church where he resided. We went in together; and sitting down on a long bench, at least a hundred years the worse for wear, the conversation took this turn on his part: A good action, as the proverb says, always meets with its reward: you gave me alms yesterday, and that has determined me to get you a place, which shall be soon done, with a blessing on my endeavours. I know an old Dominican, by name Father Alexis, a holy monk, a ghostly confessor. I have the honour to do all his little odd jobs, performing my task with so much discretion and good faith, that he always lends his interest to me and my friends. I have spoken to him about you, and in such terms as to prepossess him in your favour. You may be introduced to his reverence whenever you please.
There is not a moment to be lost, said I to the old beggar; let us go to the good monk immediately. The mendicant agreed, and led me by the arm to Father Alexis, whom we found in his room, hard at work, writing spiritual letters. He broke off to talk with me. As it was the wish of the mendicant, he would do all in his power to serve me. Having learnt, pursued be, that Signor Balthasar Velasquez is in want of a footboy, I wrote to him this morning on your behalf; and he just sent me for answer, that he would take you without further inquiry on my recommendation. This very day you may call on him from me; he is one of my flock, and my very good friend. Thereupon the monk preached to me for three quarters of an hour on my moral and religious duties, and how to fulfil them in conscience and honour. He enlarged principally on the obligation of serving Velasquez with diligence and devotion; and then assured me that he would take care and keep me in my place, provided my master had no very material fault to find with me.
After having thanked the holy person for his goodness towards me, I left the convent with the beggar, who told me that Signor Balthasar Velasquez was an old woollen-draper, but with much simplicity and good nature in his character. I doubt not, added he, but you will be perfectly comfortable in his house. I begged to know his place of residence, and repaired thither immediately, after promising to make my gratitude manifest, as soon as I had taken root in my new soil. I went into a large shop, where two fashionable young apprentices were walking up and down, practising new grimaces against the entrance of the next customer. I inquired whether their master was at home, saying that I wanted to speak with him from Father Alexis. At that venerable name they shewed me into the counting-house, where their principal was turning over the ledger. I made a low bow, and coming up to him, Sir, said I, Father Alexis ordered me to call here and offer myself as a servant to your honour. Ah! my smart lad, answered he, you are heartily welcome. It is enough that the holy man sent you; and I shall take you in preference to three or four others who have been recommended. It is a clear case; your wages begin from this day.
A very short time in the family convinced me that the head of it was just such a man as he had been described, In point of simplicity, be was everything that could be wished; so exquisite a subject for imposition, that it seemed next to an impossibility not to exercise my craft upon such a handle. He had been a widower four years, and had two children, a son five-and-twenty, and a daughter in her eleventh year. The girl, brought up by a severe duenna, under the spiritual conduct of Father Alexis, walked in the high road of virtue; but her brother, Gaspard Velasquez, though no pains had been spared to make a good man of him, picked out for himself all the vices of a young profligate. Sometimes he stayed away from home two or three days together; and if, on his return, his father ventured to remonstrate in the least against his proceedings, Gaspard shut his mouth at once, with a haughty toss of the head, and an impertinent answer.
Scipio, said the old man one day, my son is the plague of my life. He is over head and ears in all kinds of debauchery: and yet there is no accounting for it, since his education was by no means neglected. I have given him the very best masters; and my friend Father Alexis has done his utmost to train him up in the way he should go; but there was no breaking him in; Master Gaspard ran restive, and bolted into downright libertinism. You may perhaps tell me, that I spared the rod and spoiled the child. Quite otherwise! he was punished whenever the occasion seemed to demand it; for, though good-tempered at bottom, I am not to be played upon. I have even gone so far as to lock him up, but that only made hint more headstrong than before. In short, he is one of those impracticable beings, on whom good example, good advice, and a good horsewhip, are equally thrown away. If ever he makes any figure in the world, it must be by a miracle from heaven.
Though my heart was not grievously wrung by the sorrows of this unhappy father, sympathy was expected from me, and I condoled with him accordingly. How much to be pitied you are, sir! said I. Virtues like yours deserved to have been handed down in your progeny. The event is quite the reverse, my good lad, answered he. Heaven heard my prayer, and gave me a son, but converted the blessing into an affliction. Among other grounds of complaint against Gaspard, I may tell you in confidence, there is one which gives me a great deal of uneasiness; a vast longing to rob his old father, which he too often finds the means of satisfying, in spite of all my caution. Your predecessor played into his hands, and was turned away in consequence. As for you, I flatter myself that my son will never be able to tamper with your honesty. You will take my side of the question; for doubtless Father Alexis has given you your lesson on that head. You may rest assured of that, said I; for a good long hour did his reverence lecture me on doing your will and pleasure without let or hindrance; but I can assure you, there was no need of his saying anything about the matter. I feel within myself a sort of call to serve you faithfully, and I promise to do it with a zeal beyond all the temptations of the world to shake or lessen.
He who only hears one side is in danger of deciding partially. Young Velasquez, a mixture of the fribble and the braggart, concluding from the cut of my countenance that I was made up of mortal frailty like my dear predecessor, drew me aside to a snug corner, and there talked to me after this fashion. Now mind what is said to you, my dear fellow; you may think I do not know that you are set as a spy upon me by my father; but take especial care how you proceed, for I can assure you most sincerely, that the office is not without very considerable inconvenience to those who undertake it. If ever I find that you tell tales out of school, I will give you such a basting as you never had in your life; but if you will make common cause with me, and a fool of my father, you may buy golden returns of gratitude from your humble servant. Do you wish me to deal with you upon the nail? You shall go snacks in at that we can squeeze out of the old fellow. You have only to take your choice: fall at once into the ranks either of father or son; for neutrals will come worse off, where the contending parties fight for their existence.
Sir, answered I, you make the shoe pinch very tight; it is self-evident that there is nothing for me to do but to enlist under your banners, though in my conscience it seems like a crying sin to betray Signor Velasquez. That is no concern of yours, rejoined Gaspard; he is an old hunks, who wants to keep me under his thumb; a curmudgeon who refuses me the rights of nature, in refusing to stand to the expenses and repairs of my pleasures; for pleasures are the necessaries of life at five-and-twenty. It is in this point of view that you must form your opinion of my father. If that is the case, so be it, sir, said I; there is no standing against so just a subject of complaint. I am quite at your service to play second fiddle in all your laudable enterprises; but let us take especial care to conceal our good understanding, for fear your faithful, humble servant should be kicked out of doors. It will not be amiss, in my poor opinion, for you to affect an extreme antipathy against me: some good round of abuse would have a very pretty effect; you need not be nice; all the blackguard terms in the dictionary will come at your call. Nay, a box on the ear now and then, or a kick on the breech, will break no squares; on the contrary, the more you express your thorough dislike, the more Signor Balthasar will pin his faith upon my sleeve. My cue will be, apparently to avoid speaking to you if possible. In waiting at table, I shall perform my little attentions to you at arm's length; and whenever your honour may happen to be called over the coals by the shopmen, you must not take it amiss if I abuse you worse than a pick-pocket.
As plain as chalk from cheese! cried young Velasquez at this last hint; this is admirable, my friend; at your early age, it is uncommon to meet with such a talent for intrigue; I consider it as a most happy omen for my purpose. With such a performer to play up to me, I flatter myself the old codger will be pinched to the bone and left penniless. You really carry your good opinion of me beyond what my merit will justify, said I; some industry may fall to my share, but not such exalted genius. But I shall do my utmost; and if my honest endeavours fail, your candour most find excuses for my imbecility.
It was not long before Gaspard had proof positive that I was to a hair's breadth the very man he wanted; and the following was precisely the first trick I played into his hand. Balthasar's strong box was in the good man's chamber, by his bed-side, a sort of oratory, with a prayer-book always lying upon it. Every time I looked that way, my eyes glistened with hope and pleasure; my heart chuckled over the very idea of what might happen: Fair, sweet, cruel box, will you for ever be coy to my addresses? May I never experience the heart-felt delight of possessing all your charms for better, for worse? As I went into the room at pleasure, and only Gaspard was warned off the premises, it happened one day that I watched his father. The old gentleman, fancying himself unobserved of human eye, after having opened his treasury and closed it fast again, hid the key behind the hangings. I took an accurate observation of the place, and communicated the discovery to my young master, who said with an improving hug: Ah! my dear Scipio, what glorious news you bring! Our fortune is made, my dear fellow. I will furnish you with wax; you shall take the impression of the key, and then our business is done, There will be no difficulty in finding a benevolent locksmith in Cordova, where, to do the place justice, there are as many rogues as in any part of Spain.
Well! but why, said I to Gaspard, do you want a false key? We may find our account in the proper one. Yes, answered he; but I am afraid lest my father, through mistrust or whim, should take a fancy to hiding it elsewhere; and the safest way is, to have one of our own. I commended his precaution, and falling in with all his principles, got ready for taking the impression of the key: this was effected one morning early, while my old master was paying a visit to Father Alexis, with whom he for the most part held very long conferences. I did not stop here; but availed myself of the key to open the strong box, wherein an ample range of large and small bags threw me into the most delightful perplexity imaginable. I did not know which to choose, there was such a family likeness among them; nevertheless, as the fear of being caught did not allow of any long deliberation, I laid hands, haphazard, on the largest. Then, locking the box carefully, and putting the key back again behind the hangings, I got away out of the chamber with my booty, and hid it under my bed, in a small closet where I lay.
Having performed this exploit so successfully, I ran back as fast as my legs would carry me to young Velasquez, who was waiting at a house where he had given me notice to meet him, and his delight was extreme at the recital of what I had just done. He was so fully satisfied with me, as to lavish caresses without number, and to offer me thrice, in the fulness of his heart, half the contents of the bag, which I did thrice refuse. No, no, sir, said I, this first bag is yours and yours only; apply it to your own uses and occasions. I shall return forth with to the strong box, where, as our lucky stars have contrived it, there is money enough for both of us. Accordingly, three days afterwards I carried off a second bag, containing, like the first, five hundred crowns, of which I would only handle the fourth part, let Gaspard be as pressing as he pleased to force upon me a brotherly division, share and share alike.
As soon as this young man found himself so flush of money, and consequently in a condition to gratify his hankering after women and play, he gave himself up entirely to the devices of his own imagination; nay, his evil genius pursued him so far, as to make him fall desperately in love with one of those female harpies, who devour without remorse or intermission, and swallow up the largest fortunes. His disbursements at her instigation were frightful; and thus it became necessary for me to pay so many visits to the strong box, that old Velasquez at length found out he had been robbed. Scipio, said he one morning, I must give you a piece of information; some one robs me, my friend; my strong box has been opened; several bags have been taken out, that is a certain fact. Whom ought I to accuse of this theft? or rather, who else but my son can have committed it? Gaspard must have got by stealth into my chamber, or else you yourself must have played booty with him; for I am tempted to believe you are in league with him, though to outward appearance you do not set up your horses together. And yet I am unwilling to harbour that suspicion, because Father Alexis undertook to answer for your honesty. I gave him to understand that, by the blessing of heaven on a good natural disposition, my neighbours' goods had no temptation in my sight; and I so happily suited the action to the lie, and the lie to the action, that my judge pronounced a verdict of acquittal on the evidence of grimace and hypocrisy.
Accordingly the old man dropped the subject; but for all that, there was a general misgiving in his breast, and it would sometimes light upon me; taking precautions, therefore, against our further attacks, he had a new lock put to his strong box and always carried the key in his pocket By these means, an embargo being laid on our traffic with the bags, we looked excessively foolish, especially Gaspard, who, being unable any longer to keep his nymph in her usual style, knew very well that he was likely to be tossed out of her window. He had, however, invention enough to devise an expedient for keeping his head above water a few days longer, and that was neither more nor less than to get into his clutches, in the form of a loan, my dividend on the joint stock of the strong box. I refunded to the last farthing; and this restitution, it is to be hoped, may be set off as an anticipated act of justice to the old draper, in the person of his heir.
The young man, having exhausted this scanty supply, and desperate of any other, fell into a deep melancholy, and into ultimate derangement. He no longer looked on his father in any other light than as the bane of his life. His frenzy broke out into the most dreadful projects; so that, without listening to the voice of consanguinity or nature, the wretch conceived the impious design of poisoning him. He was not content with making me privy to the atrocious design, but even proposed to render me the instrument of parricide. At the very thought, my blood ran cold within me. Sir, said I, is it possible that you are so rejected of heaven as to have formed this horrid plot? What! is it in your nature to murder the author of your existence? Shall Spain, the favoured abode of the Christian faith, bear witness to the commission of a crime, at the first blush of which transatlantic savages would recoil with horror? No, my dear master, added I, throwing myself on my knees, no, you will not be guilty of an action which would raise the hand of all mankind against you, and be overtaken by an infamous punishment
I pressed many arguments beside on Gaspard, to dissuade him from so fearful an enterprise. How the deuce I came by all the moral and religious topics, which I brought to act against the fortress of his despair, is more than I can account for; but it is certain that I preached like a doctor of Salamanca, though a mere stripling, born of a gipsy fortune-teller. And yet it was to no purpose that I suggested the duty of communing with his own better resolutions, and stoutly wrestling with the fiend, who was lying in wait for his immortal soul; my pious eloquence was dissipated into air. His head hung sullenly on his bosom, and his tongue uttered no sound, in answer to all my mollifying exhortations, so that there was every reason to conclude he would not swerve from his purpose.
Hereupon, taking my own measures, I requested a private interview with my old master; and being closeted with him, Sir, said I, allow me to throw myself at your feet, and to implore your pity. In pathetic accord with my moving accents, I prostrated myself before him, with my face all bathed in tears. The merchant, surprised at what he saw and heard, asked the cause of my distress. Remorse of conscience and repentance, answered I; but neither repentance nor remorse can ever wash out my guilt. I have been weak enough to give ear to your son, and to be his accomplice in robbing you. To this confession I added a sincere acknowledgment of all that had happened, with the particulars of my late conversation with Gaspard, whose design I laid open without the least reserve.
Bad as was the opinion which old Velasquez entertained of his son, he could scarcely believe his ears. Nevertheless, finding no good reason to distrust the truth of my account, Scipio, said he, raising me from the ground, where I had till now been prostrate at his feet, I forgive you in consideration of the important notice you have communicated. Gaspard! pursued he, raising his voice up to the loudness of anguish, does Gaspard aim a blow at my life! Ah l ungrateful son, unnatural monster! better thou hadst never been born, or stifled at thy birth, than to have been reared for the destruction of thy father! What plea, what object, what palliation of the atrocious deed? I furnished thee annually with a reasonable allowance for thy pleasures, and what wouldst thou have more? Must I have drained my fortune to the dregs to support thee in thy extravagance? Having vented his feelings in this bitter apostrophe, he enjoined secrecy on me, and told me to leave him alone, while be considered how to act in so delicate a conjuncture.
I was very anxious to know what resolution this unhappy father would take, when on that very day he sent for Gaspard, and addressed hint thus without betraying the inward emotions of his heart: My so; I have received a letter from Merida, purporting that if you are disposed to marry, you may make a match with a very fine girl of fifteen, with a handsome fortune in her pocket. If you have not forsworn that happy and holy estate, we will set out to-morrow morning by daybreak for Merida: you will see the lady in question, and if she hits your fancy, the business may soon be settled, Gaspard, pricking up his ears at a handsome fortune, and already fingering the cash by anticipation, answered unhesitatingly that he was ready to undertake the journey; and accordingly they departed the following day at sun-rise, without attendants, mounted on good mules.
Having reached the mountains of Fesira, in a delightful spot for the operations of banditti, but terror-stirring to the timid souls of travellers, Balthasar dismounted, and desired his son to do likewise. The young man obeyed, but expressed his surprise at such a requisition, in so lonely a place. I will tell you the reason presently, answered the old man, darting at him a look of mingled grief and anger: We are not going to Merida; and the alleged courtship was only an invention of mine, for the purpose of drawing you hither. I am not ignorant, ungrateful and unnatural son, I am not uninformed of your meditated crime. I am aware that a poison, prepared by your hands, was to have been administered to me; but, mad as you are, could it enter into your contemplation that my life could have been invaded with impunity by such means? How fatally mistaken! Your crime would soon have been detected, and you would have perished under the hands of the executioner. There is a safer way of glutting your fell malice, without exposing yourself to an ignominious death; we are here without witnesses, and in a place where daily murders are perpetrated; since you are so thirsty after my blood, plunge your dagger into my bosom: the assassination will naturally be laid at the door of some banditti. After these words, Balthasar, laying his breast bare, and pointing to his heart, ended with this challenge: Here, Gaspard, strike deep enough, strike home; make me pay that forfeit for having engendered such a disgrace to human nature, and no more than what is due to so monstrous a production,
Young Velasquez, struck by this reproach as by a thunderbolt, far from pleading in his own justification, fell instantly lifeless at his father's feet. The good old man, hailing the germ of repentance in this unfeigned testimony of shame, could not help yielding to paternal weakness; he made all possible haste to give his assistance; but Gaspard had no sooner recovered the use of his senses, than unable to stand in the presence of a father so justly offended, he made an effort to raise himself from the ground, then sprang upon his mule, and galloped out of sight without saying one word. Balthasar suffered him to take his own course, and returned to Cordova, little doubting but conscience would play its part in revenging his wrongs. Six months afterwards it appeared that the culprit had thrown himself into the Carthusian convent at Seville, there to pass the remnant of his days in penance.