CH. VIII. -- The Marchioness of Chaves: her character, and that of her company.

 

THE Marchioness of Chaves was a widow of five-and-thirty, tall, handsome, and well-proportioned. She enjoyed an income of ten thousand ducats, without the incumbrance of a nursery. I never met with a lady of fewer words, nor one of a more solemn aspect. Yet this exterior did not prevent her from being set up as the cleverest woman in all Madrid. Her great assemblies, attended by people of the first quality, and by men of letters who made a coffee house of her apartments, contributed perhaps more than anything she said to give her the reputation she had acquired. But this is a point on which it is not my province to decide. I have only to relate, as her historian, that her name carried with it the idea of superior genius, and that her house was called, to distinguish it from the ordinary societies in town, The Fashionable Institution for Literature, Taste, and Science.

In point of fact, not a day passed, but there were readings there, sometimes of dramatic pieces, and sometimes in other branches of poetry. But the subjects were always selected from the graver muses; wit and humour were held in the most sovereign contempt. Comedy, however spirited; a novel, however pointed in its satire or ingenious in its fable, such light productions as these were treated as weak efforts of the brain without the slightest claim to patronage; whereas on the contrary the most microscopical work in the serious style, whether ode, pastoral, or sonnet, was trumpeted to the skies as the most illustrious effort of a learned and poetical age. It not unfrequently fell out, that the public reversed the decrees of this chancery for genius: nay, they had sometimes the gross ill-breeding to hiss the very pieces which had been sanctioned by this court of criticism.

I was chief manager of the establishment, and my office consisted in getting the drawing-room ready to receive the company, in setting the chairs in order for the gentlemen, and the sofas for the ladies: after which I took my station on the landing-place to bawl out the names of the visitors as they came up stairs, and usher them into the circle. The first day, an old piece of family furniture, who was stationed by my side in the ante-chamber, gave me their description with some humour, after I had shown them into the room. His name was Andrew Molina. He had a good deal of mother's wit, with a flowing vein of satire, much gravity of sarcasm, and a happy knack at hitting off characters. The first corner was a bishop. I roared out his lordship's name, and as soon as he was gone in, my nomenclator told me -- That prelate is a very curious gentleman. He has some little influence at court; but wants to persuade the world that he has a great deal. He presses his service on every soul he comes near, and then leaves them completely in the lurch. One day he met with a gentleman in the presence-chamber who bowed to him. He laid hold of him, and squeezing his hand, assured him, with an inundation of civilities, that he was altogether devoted to his lordship. For goodness' sake, do not spare me; I shall not die in my bed without having first found an opportunity of making you my debtor. The gentleman returned his thanks with all becoming expressions of gratitude, and when they were at some distance from one another, the obsequious churchman said to one of his attendants in waiting -- I ought to know that man; I have some floating, indistinct idea of having seen him somewhere.

Next after the bishop, came the son of a grandee. When I had introduced him into my lady's room -- This nobleman, said Molina, is also an original in his way. You are to take notice that he often pays a visit, for the express purpose of talking over some urgent business with the friend on whom he calls, and goes away again without once thinking on the topic he came solely to discuss. But, added my showman on the sight of two ladies, here are Donna Angela de Penafiel and Donna Margaretta de Montalvan. This pair have not a feature of resemblance to each other. Donna Margaretta prides herself on her philosophical acquirements; she will hold her head as high as the most learned head among the doctors of Salamanca, nor will the wisdom of her conceit ever give up the point to the best reasons they can render. As for Donna Angela, she does not affect the learned lady, though she has taken no unsuccessful pains in the improvement of her mind. Her manner of talking is rational and proper, her ideas are novel and ingenious, expressed in polite, significant, and natural terms. This latter portrait is delightful, said I to Molina; but the other, in my opinion, is scarcely to be tolerated in the softer sex. Not over bearable indeed! replied he with a sneer: even in men it does but expose them to the lash of satire. The good marchioness herself, our honoured lady, continued he, she too has a sort of a philosophical looseness. There will be fine chopping of logic there to-day! God grant the mysteries of religion may not be invaded by these disputants.

As he was finishing this last sentence, in came a withered bit of mortality, with a grave and crabbed look. My companion shewed him no mercy. This fellow, said he, is one of those pompous, unbending spirits who think to pass for men of profound genius, under favour of a few common-places extracted out of Seneca; yet they are but shallow coxcombs when one comes to examine them narrowly. Then followed in the train a spruce figure, with tolerable person and address, to say nothing of a troubled air and manner, which always supposes a plentiful stock of self-sufficiency. I inquired who this was. A dramatic poet! said Molina. He has manufactured an hundred thousand verses in his time, which never brought him in the value of a groat; but as a set-off against his metrical failure, he has feathered his nest very warmly by six lines of humble prose: you will wonder by what magic touch a fortune could be made

And so I did; but a confounded noise upon the staircase put verse and prose completely out of my head. Good again! exclaimed my informer: here is the licentiate Campanario. He is his own harbinger before ever he makes his appearance. He sets out from the very street door in a continued volley of conversation, and you hear how the alarm is kept up till he makes his retreat. In good sooth, the vaulted roof re-echoed with the organ of the thundering licentiate, who at length exhibited the case in which the pipes were contained. He brought a bachelor of his acquaintance by way of accompaniment, and there was not a sotto voce passage during the whole visit. Signor Campanario, said I to Molina, is to all appearance a man of very fine conversation. Yes, replied my sage instructor, the gentleman has his lucky hits, and a sort of quaintness that might pass for humour; he does very well in a mixed company. But the worst of it is, that incessant talking is one of his most pardonable errors. He is a little too apt to borrow from himself; and as those who are behind the scenes are not to be dazzled by the tinsel of the property-man, so we know how to separate a certain volubility and buffoonery of manner from sterling wit and sense. The greater part of his good things would be thought very bad ones, if submitted, without their concomitant grimaces, to the ordeal of a jest book.

Other groups passed before us, and Molina touched them with his wand. The marchioness too came in for a magic rap over the knuckles. Our lady patroness, said he, is better than might be expected for a female philosopher. She is not dainty in her likings; and bating a whim or two, it is no hard matter to give her satisfaction, Wits and women of quality seldom approach so near the atmosphere of good sense; and for passion, she scarcely knows what it is. Play and gallantry are equally in her black books: dear conversation is her first and sole delight. To lead such a life would be little better than penance to the common run of ladies. Molina's character of my mistress established her at once in my good graces. And yet, in the course of a few days, I could not help suspecting that, though not dainty in her likings, she knew what passion was, and that a foul copy of gallantry delighted her more than the fairest conversation.

One morning, during the mysteries of the toilette, there presented himself to my notice a little fellow of forty, forbidding in his aspect, more filthy if possible than Pedro de Moya the bookworm, and verging in no marketable measure towards deformity. He told me he wanted to speak with my lady marchioness. On whose business? quoth I. On my own, quoth he, somewhat snappishly. Tell her I am the gentleman; . . . . she will understand you; . . . . about whom she was talking yesterday with Donna Anna de Velasco. I went before him into my lady's apartment, and gave in his name. The marchioness all at once shrieked out her satisfaction, and ordered me to show him in. It was not courtesy enough to point to a chair, and bid him sit down: but the attendants, forsooth, her own maids about her person were to withdraw, so that the little hunchback, with better luck than falls to the lot of many a taller man, had the field entirely to himself, as lord paramount. As for the girls and myself, we could not help tittering a little at this uncouthly concerted duet, which lasted nearly an hour: when my patroness dismissed his little lordship, with such a profusion of farewells and God-be-with-you's, as sufficiently evinced her thankfulness for the entertainment she had received.

The conversation had, in fact, been so edifying, that in the afternoon she seized a private opportunity of whispering in my ear -- Gil Blas, when the short gentleman comes again, you may shew him up the back stairs; there is no need of parading him along a line of staring servants. I did as I was ordered. When this epitome of humanity knocked at the door, and that hour was no further off than the next morning, we threaded all the bye passages to the place of assignation. I played the same modest part two or three times in the very innocence of my soul, without the most distant guess that the material system could form any part of their philosophy. But that hound-like snuff at an ill construction, with which the devil has armed the noses of the most charitable, put me on the scent of a very whimsical game, and I concluded either that the marchioness had an odd taste, or that crookback courted her as proxy to a better man.

Faith and troth, thought I, with all the impertinence of a hasty opinion, if my mistress really likes a handsome fellow behind the curtain, all is well; I forgive her her sins: but if she is stark mad for such a monkey as this, to say the truth, there will be little mercy for her on male or female tongues. But how foully did I defame my honoured patroness! The genius of magic had perched herself upon the little conjurer's protuberant shoulder; and his skill having been puffed off to the marchioness, who was just the right food for such jugglers and their tricks, she held private conferences with him. Under his tuition she was to command wealth and treasure, to build castles in the air, to remove from place to place in an instant, to reveal future events, to tell what is done in far countries, to call the dead out of their graves, and terrify the world with many miracles. Seriously, and to give him his deserts, the scoundrel lived on the folly of the public; and it has been confidently asserted, that ladies of fashion have not in all ages and countries been exempt from the credulity of their inferiors.

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