CH. III. -- Lucretia's popularity; her appearance before the king; his passion, and its consequences.
GREAT was the noise about the court on this double acquisition to the theatre; it became the topic of conversation next day at the king's levee. The young Lucretia was most in the mouths of the nobility, who described her so feelingly, that his majesty could not but imbibe the impression, though he was too politic to express his interest either in words or by looks.
To make amends for that restraint, he questioned the minister as soon as he was alone with him, who stated the success of a young actress from Toledo on the evening before. Her name, added he, is Lucretia; and it is really a pity that ladies of her profession should ever have been christened by any less chaste appellative. She is an acquaintance of Santillane, who spoke so highly of her, that I thought it right to engage her for your majesty's company. The king smiled at the mention of my name, recollecting, perhaps, through what channel he became acquainted with Catalina, and foreboding a like assistance on the present occasion. Count, said he to the minister, I mean to see this Lucretia act to-morrow, and will thank you to let her know it.
I was of course sent with this intelligence to the two actresses. Great news! said I to Laura, whom I saw first: you will have the sovereign of the Spanish monarchy among your audience to-morrow, as the minister has desired me to inform you. I cannot doubt but you will both of you do your best to prove yourselves worthy of a royal command; but I would advise you to choose a piece with music and dancing, that all Lucretia's accomplishments may be displayed at one view. We will take your counsel, answered Laura, and it shall not be our faults if his majesty is disappointed. That can scarcely happen, said I, seeing Lucretia come into the room in an undress, which shewed her person to more advantage than all the wardrobe of the theatre: he will be the more delighted with your lovely niece, because dancing and music are his principal pleasures: he may even be tempted to throw her the handkerchief. I do not at all wish, replied Laura, that he should be that way inclined; all-powerful monarch as he is, he might not find the accomplishment of his desires so easy. Lucretia, though brought up behind the scenes, is not without virtuous principles; whatever pleasure she may take in applause and professional reputation, she had much rather preserve the character of a good girl, than establish that of a great actress.
Aunt, said little Marialva, joining in the conversation, why conjure up monsters only to lay them again? I shall never be at a loss to repel the king's advances, because his taste is too refined to stoop so low. But, charming Lucretia, said I, if such a thing should happen, would you be cruel enough to let him languish like a common lover? Why not? answered she. Setting virtue aside, my vanity would he more flattered by my own resistance than by the tribute of his affection. I was not a little surprised to hear a pupil of Laura's school talk so properly, and to find that with so free an education she imbibed such unusual principles of morality.
The king, impatient to see Lucretia, went to the play next evening. The piece was got up with music and dancing, to shew our young actress off to the best advantage. My eyes were fixed on his majesty; but he completely eluded my penetration by an obstinate gravity. On the following day, the minister said: Santillane, I have just been with the king, who has been talking about Lucretia, with so much animation, that I doubt not but he is smitten: and, as I told him that you had sent for her from Toledo, he expressed a wish to confer with you in private on the subject: orders are given for your admittance; run, and bring me back an account of what passes.
I flew to the palace, and found the king alone. He was walking up and down, in much apparent perplexity. He put several questions to me about Lucretia, made me relate her history, and then asked whether the little jade had not been tampering with chastity already. I boldly assured him to the contrary, though such pledges were somewhat hazardous in general; but mine was taken, and gave the prince much pleasure. If so, replied he, I select you for my agent with Lucretia; let her become acquainted with her triumph from your lips. He then put a box of jewels into my hand, worth fifty thousand crowns, with a message begging her acceptance of them, and promising more substantial proofs of his affection.
Before I went on my errand, I reported progress to my lord duke. That minister, I thought, would be more vexed than rejoiced at it; supposing that he had his own views of gallantry towards Lucretia, and would learn with regret the rivalship of his master; but I was mistaken. Far from appearing chagrined, his joy was so excessive, that it would ooze out at his tongue, in words which were not quite lost on the hearer. "Indeed, friend Philip! then I have you in my clutches: while your pleasures lead you, your business must be left to me!" This side speech explained to me the plot; an amorous prince, and a long-headed minister! My orders were to execute my commission as speedily as possible, with the assurance that the first lord in the land would be proud to stand in my shoes. Besides, there was no pimp of rank, as in the former case, to seize the profit and leave the infamy with me; the honour and emolument were now exclusively my own.
Thus did his excellency relish the ingredients of pandarism to my palate; and I tasted them with the greediness, but not without the qualms of an epicure; for since my imprisonment I had become regenerate, and did not take pride in dirty work, because my employer washed his hands in perfumed water. But though conscience was awake, interest was not asleep. I was no longer a villain for the fun of it; but my compliance would confirm my footing with the minister, and him it was my duty, at all events, to please.
My first appeal was to Laura in private. I opened the negotiation delicately, and presented my credentials in the form of the jewel-box. The lady was thrown off her guard by the display. Signor Gil Blas, cried she, you are one of my oldest friends, and I must not play the hypocrite: strait-laced morals are inconsistent with the discipline of my sect. Nothing can be more delightful to me than a conquest, which throws such a game into our hands. But, between ourselves, I am afraid Lucretia is not so enlightened as we are; though a daughter of Thalia, she has taken the better-behaved goddesses for her school-mistresses, and given a rebuff to two young noblemen of amiable manners and large fortunes. They were not kings, you will say, and truly we may hope that Lucretia's virtue will be too undisciplined to stand a royal siege; but you must remember the event is hazardous, and I shall not interpose my authority to compel her. If, far from thinking herself honoured by the fleeting passion of the king, she should revolt from his advances with disdain, let not our illustrious sovereign be offended at her reserve. But do you come back hither to-morrow, and carry back either the jewels, or a return of affection.
I had no doubt but Laura would tutor Lucretia in the school of time-serving morality, and depended much on her instruction. It was therefore no small surprise to find that Laura worked as much against wind and tide to launch her daughter into the trade-wind of evil, as other maternal pilots to set the sails of theirs in the contrary monsoon of good; and what is still more unaccountable, Lucretia, after tasting of royal delights, was so completely surfeited with the banquet as to throw herself at once into the arms of the church, where she professed, fell sick, and died of grief. Laura, disconsolate for the loss of her daughter, and the part she herself had acted in the tragedy, retired into a convent of female penitents, and did penance for the unhallowed pleasures of her former life. The king was affected by his sudden loss, but soon found comfort in some other pursuit. The premier talked little on the subject, but thought so much the more, as the reader will easily believe.