CH. VII. -- Laura's Story.

 

I SHALL just run over to you, as briefly as possible, the circumstances which led me to embrace the theatrical profession.

After you took French leave, so much to your credit, great events happened. My mistress Arsenia, more surfeited with a glut of pleasures than scandalized at their immorality, renounced the stage, and took me with her to a fine estate which she had just purchased in the neighbourhood of Zenora with the wages of her sinful life. We soon got acquainted in the town. Our visits there were very frequent; and sometimes for a day or two together. With the exception of these little excursions, we were as closely domesticated as probationers in a nunnery, and almost as piously employed.

On one of our high days and holidays, Don Felix Moldonado, the corregidor's only son, saw me by chance, and took a liking to me. He soon found an opportunity of speaking with me in private; and, as it is in vain to affect modesty before one who knows me so well, there was some little contrivance of my own to bring the interview about. The young gentleman was not twenty years of age; the very picture of Venus's sweetheart, or Venus's sweetheart the very picture of him; with a form for a sculptor to work from; with an address so elegant, and with sentiments so generous, as to throw even his personal graces into the background. There was such a winning way with him, so pressing an earnestness to prevail, when he took a large diamond from his own finger, and slid it upon mine, that it would have been quite brutal not to have let it stay there. It was really something like sentiment that I began to entertain towards a swain of so interesting a character. But what an absurd thing it is for wenches of a certain sort to hook themselves upon young men of family, when their surly fathers hold official situations! The corregidor, who had scarcely his equal in the whole tribe of corregidors, got wind of our correspondence, and determined to close it in a summary manner. He sent a host of alguazils to take me into custody, who dragged me away, in spite of my cries and tears, to the house of correction for female penitents.

There, without bill of indictment or form of trial, the lady abbess ordered me to be stripped of my ring and my clothes, and to be dressed in the habit of the institution; a long gown of grey serge tied about the middle with a strap of black leather, whence depended a rosary with large beads swinging down to my heels. After this pleasant reception, they took me into a hall, where there was an old monk, the deuce knows of what order, who set to work preaching up repentance and resignation, pretty much in the same strain as Dame Leonarda, when she exhorted you to patience in the subterraneous cavern. He told me that I was excessively obliged indeed to those good people who had so kindly shut me up, and could never thank them sufficiently for their good deed, in rescuing me from the harpy talons of the world, the flesh, and the devil. But I must frankly own that all my other sins were pressed down and heaped high with ingratitude: far from overflowing with the milk of human kindness towards those who had conferred such a favour upon me, I abused them in terms that would have put any dictionary to the blush.

Eight days thus passed in this wilderness of desolation; but on the ninth, for I had notched the hours and even the minutes on a stick, my fate seemed be ginning to take another turn. Crossing a little court, I met the house steward, a personage whose will was absolute; yes, the lady abbess herself was obedient to his will. He rendered an account of his stewardship to none but the corregidor, on whom alone he was dependent, and whose confidence in him was unbounded. His name was Pedro Zendono, and the town of Salsedon in Biscay laid claim to the honour of his birth. Figure to yourself a tall man, with the complexion of a mummy and the bare anatomy of a dealer in mortification; he might have sat for the penitent thief in a picture of the crucifixion. He scarcely ever cast a carnal glance towards us Magdalens. You never saw such a face of rank hypocrisy in all your life, though you have spent some part of it under the same roof with the archbishop, and are not unacquainted with the clergy of his diocese.

But to return from this digression; . . . . I met this Signor Zendono, who said to me slily as he passed -- Take comfort, my girl, I am sensibly affected with your wretched case. He said no more, and went on his way, leaving me to make my own comments on so concise and general a text As he looked like a good man, and there was no positive evidence to set against his looks, I was simpleton enough to fancy that he had taken the trouble of inquiring why I was shut up; and meant, not finding me so atrocious a culprit as to deserve such shameful insults, to take my part with the corregidor. But I was not up to the tricks of the Biscayan, he had a much longer head. He was turning over in his mind the scheme of an elopement, and made the proposal to me in profound privacy some days afterwards. My dear Laura, said he, your sufferings have taken such deep possession of my mind, that I have determined to end them. I am perfectly aware that my own ruin is involved in the measure, but needs must when the tender passion drives. To-morrow morning do I intend to take you out of prison, and conduct you in person to Madrid. No sacrifice is too great for the pleasure of being your deliverer.

I was very near fainting with surprise and joy at this promise of Zendono, who, concluding from my acknowledgments that my very life depended on my rescue, had the effrontery to carry me off next day in the face of the whole town, by the following device: -- He told the lady abbess that he had orders to take me before the corregidor, who was at his country box a few miles off; and without betraying himself by a single change of countenance, packed me off, with him for my companion, in a post-chaise drawn by two good mules which he had bought for the occasion. Our only attendant was the driver, a servant of his own, and entirely devoted to the steward by stronger ties than those of gratitude. We began bowling away, not in the direction of Madrid, as I had taken for granted, but towards the frontiers of Portugal, whither we got in less time than it took the corregidor of Zamora to receive the deposition of our flight, and uncouple his pack or set them barking at our heels.

Before we entered Braganza, the Biscayan made me put on man's clothes, with which he had taken the precaution of providing himself. Reckoning on me as being fairly launched in the same boat with him, he said to me in the inn where we put up, Lovely Laura, do not take it unkindly of me to have brought you into Portugal. The corregidor of Zamora will make our own country too hot to hold us, for in his eyes we are two criminals, under the weight of whose enormities it is not for Spain to groan. But we may set his malice at defiance in this distant realm, though at the present conjuncture under the dominion of the Spanish monarchy. At least we shall stand a better chance for safety here than at home. League your fortunes with those of a man who would follow you in prosperity or in adversity through the world. Let us fix our residence at Coimbra. There I will get employed as a spy for the inquisition; under the cover of that formidable tribunal, a refreshing shade for us, but Cimmerian darkness to its victims, our days will glide smoothly on in ease and pleasure, we shall fatten on the spoil of religious delinquency.

A proposal so much to the point gave me to understand that I had to do with a knight, who had other motives for officiating as the guardian of distressed damsels, besides the honour of chivalry. I saw at once that he reckoned much on my gratitude, and still more on my distress. Nevertheless, though these two pleas were almost equally eloquent in his favour, I rejected his addresses with disdain. The reason was, that there were two advocates still more eloquent on the side of a refusal; a certainty that he was disagreeable, and a strong suspicion that he was poor. But when he returned to the charge, and offered to say the grace of matrimony before he fell to, proving to me at the same time, by the undeniable evidence of cash in hand, that his stewardship had enabled him to live in clover for a long time to come, the truth must come out in spite of blushes; my heart was softened, and my ears unstopped. I was dazzled by the gold and jewels which he laid out in burning row before me, and became a living monument in my own person, that miraculous transformations are effected by the power of pelf, as well as by the wand of love. My Biscayan became, by little and little, quite another sort of man in my eyes. His tall body and bare bones were plumped up into a shapely and commanding figure; his cadaverous complexion was improved into a manly brown: even that look, as if butter would not melt in his mouth, was no longer hypocrisy, but a staid and decent aspect. Having made these discoveries, I accepted his hand without any material abhorrence, and he plighted the usual vows in all due form. After this, like a good wife, I kept the spirit of contradiction as much as possible under the hatches. We resumed our journey, and Coimbra soon received a new family within its walls

My husband stocked my wardrobe as became my sex and station, making me a present of several diamonds, among which I fixed my eye on that of Don Felix Moldonado. There were no further documents wanting to give a shrewd guess whence came all the precious stones I had seen, and to be morally certain that I had not married a troublesomely nice observer of the eighth article in the decalogue. Yet, considering myself as the main-spring of all his little deviations from the strict law of propriety, it was not for me to judge harshly on that point A woman can always find a palliation for the misdeeds which are set in motion by the power of her own beauty. But for that, he certainly would have ranked no higher than one of the wicked in my estimation.

I had no great reason to complain of him for two or three months. His attentions were always polite and kind, amounting apparently to a sincere and tender affection. But no such thing! These proofs of wedded love, this worshipping with the body, and endowing with the worldly goods, were all but a copy of his countenance; for the cheating fellow meant, as men serve a cucumber, to throw me away on the first opportunity. One morning, at my return from mass, I found nothing at home but the bare walls; the moveables, not excepting my own apparel, every stick and every thread, had been carried off. Zendono and his faithful servant had taken their measures so adroitly, that in less than an hour the house had been completely gutted; so that with nothing but the gown upon my back, and Don Felix's ring, as good luck would have it, on my finger, here stood I, like another Ariadne, abandoned by the ungrateful rifler of my effects as well as of my charms. But you may take my word for it, I did not beguile the sense of my misfortunes in tragedy, elegy, scene individable, or poem unlimited. I rather fell upon my knees, and blessed my guardian angel, for having delivered me from a rascal who must sooner or later fall into the hands of justice. The time we had passed together I considered in the light of a dead loss, and my spirits were all on the alert to make up for it. If I had been inclined to stay in Portugal, as a hanger-on to some woman of fashion, I should have found no difficulty in suiting myself; but whether it was patriotism, or some astrological conjunction, preparing a better fortune for me under the influence of the planets, my whole heart was bent on getting back into Spain. I applied to a jeweller, who valued my diamond and gave me cash for it, and then took my departure with an old Spanish lady who was going to Seville in a post-chaise.

This lady, whose name was Dorothea, had been to see a relation settled at Coimbra, and was on her return to Seville, where she lived. There was such a sympathy between us, as made us fast friends on the very first day of our acquaintance; and the attachment grew so close while we travelled together, that the lady insisted, at our journey's end, on my making her house my home. I had no reason to repent having formed such a connection. Never was there a woman of a more charming character. One might still conclude from the turn of her countenance, and from the spirit not yet quenched in her eyes, that in her youth the catgut of many a guitar must have been fretted under her window. As a proof of this, she had many trials what a state of widowhood was; her husbands had all been of noble birth, and her finances were flourishing on the accumulation of her several jointures.

Among other admirable qualities, she had that of not visiting severely the frailties of her own sex. When I let her into the secret of mine, she entered so warmly into my interests, as to speak of Zendono with more sincerity than good manners. What graceless fellows these men are! said she in a tone from which one might infer that she had met with some light-fingered steward in the passing of her accounts. They would not be worth picking off a dunghill, if one could do without them! There is a large fraternity of sorry scoundrels in the world, who make it their sport to gain the hearts of women, and then desert them. There is, however, one consoling circumstance, my dear child. According to your account, you are by no means bound fast to that faithless Biscayan. If your marriage with him was sufficiently formal to save your credit with the world, on the other hand, it was contracted loosely enough to admit of your trying your luck at a better match, whenever an opportunity may fall in your way.

I went out every day with Dorothea, either to church, or to visit among her friends; both likely occasions of picking up an adventure; so that I attracted the notice of several gentlemen. There were some of them who had a mind to feel how the land lay. They made their proposals to my venerable protectress; but these had not wherewithal to defray the expenses of an establishment, and those were mere unfledged boys under age; an insuperable objection, which left me very little merit in turning a deaf ear to them. One day a whim seized Dorothea and me, to go and see a play at Seville. The bills announced a favourite and standard piece: El Embaxador de Si-mismo, written by Lope de Vega.

Among the actresses who came upon the stage, I discovered one of my old cronies. It was impossible to have forgotten Phenicia, that bouncing good humoured girl whom you have seen as Florimonde's waiting-maid, and have supped with more than once at Arsenia's. I was aware that Phenicia had left Madrid above two years ago, but had never heard of her turning actress. I longed so earnestly to embrace her, that the piece appeared quite tedious. Perhaps, too, there might be some fault in those who played it, as being neither good enough nor bad enough to afford me entertainment. For as to my own temper, which is that of seeking diversion wherever I can find it, I must confess that an actor supremely ridiculous answers my purpose just as well as the most finished performer of the age.

At last, the moment I had been waiting for being arrived, namely the dropping of the curtain on this favourite and standard piece, we went, for my widow would go with me, behind the scenes, where we caught a glimpse of Phenicia, who was playing off the amiable and unaffected simpleton, and listening with all the primness of studied simplicity to the soft chirping of a young stagefinch, who had evidently suffered himself to be caught in the birdlime of her professional or meretricious talents. No sooner did her eye meet mine, than she quitted him with a genteel apology, ran up to me with open arms, and lavished upon me all the demonstrations of strong attachment imaginable. Our expressions of joy at this unexpected meeting were indeed reciprocal; but neither time nor place admitting of any very copious indulgence in the privilege of asking questions, we adjourned till the following day, with a promise of renewing our mutual inquiries thick and threefold, under the shelter of her friendly roof.

The pleasure of talking is the inextinguishable passion of woman, coeval with the act of breathing. I could not get a wink of sleep all night, for the burning desire of having a grapple with Phenicia, and closing in upon her in the conflict of curiosity. Witness all the powers who preside over tattling, whether the love of lying in bed, another passion of woman, prevented me from getting up and flying to my appointment as early as good manners would allow. She lived with the rest of the company in a large ready-furnished lodging. A female attendant who met me at entrance, on being requested to shew me Phenicia's apartment, led the way up-stairs to a gallery, along which were ranged ten or twelve small rooms, divided only by partitions of deal boards, and inhabited by this merry band. My conductress knocked at a door which Phenicia opened; for her tongue was cruelly on the fidget to be let loose, as well as my own. We allowed ourselves no time for the impertinent ceremonies which usually usher in a visit, but plunged at once into a most furious career of loquacity. It seemed as if we should have a tight bout together. There were so many interrogatories to be bandied backwards and forwards, that question and answer rebounded like tennis-balls, only with tenfold velocity.

After having related our adventures each to other, and inquired into the actual condition of affairs, Phenicia asked me how I meant to provide for myself. My reply was, that I purposed, while waiting for something better, to get a situation with some young lady of quality. For shame, exclaimed my other self, you shall not think of such a thing. Is it possible, my darling, that you should not yet be disgusted with menial service? Are you not heartily sick of knocking under to the good or ill pleasure of others, of being cap-in-hand to all their caprices, and after all to be entertained with that unchangeable tune called a scolding, in a word, to be a downright slave? Why do not you follow my example, and turn your thoughts towards the stage? Nothing can be better suited to people of parts, when they happen not to be equally favoured in the articles of wealth and birth. It is a sphere of life which holds a middle rank between the nobility and mere tradespeople; a profession exempted from all troublesome restraint, and raised far above the common prejudices of humble and decent Society. The public are our bankers, and we draw upon them at sight. We live in a continual round of ecstacy, and spend our money to the full as fast as we earn it.

The theatre (for she went on at a great rate) is favourable above all to women. When I lived with Florimonde, it is a misery to think of it, I was reduced to take up with the supernumeraries of the prince's company; not a single man of fashion paid the least attention to my figure. How came that about? Because they never got a glimpse of it The finest picture in the world may escape the admiration of the connoisseurs, if it is not placed in a proper light. But since I have been suitably framed and varnished, which could only happen in consequence of a theatrical finish, what a revolution! The finest young fellows of all the towns we pass through are shuffling at my heels. An actress therefore has all her little comforts about her, without deviating from the line of her duty. If she is discreet, by which we mean that she should not admit more than one lover into her good graces at a time, her exemplary conduct is cried up as without a parallel. She is called a very Niobe for her coldness; and when she changes her favourite, she is reprimanded as slightly by the world, as a lawful widow who marries a few weeks too soon after the death of her first husband. If, however, the widow should look for luck in odd numbers, and take to herself a third, the contempt of all mankind is poured down on her devoted head; she is considered as a monster of indelicacy; whereas we happier women are so much the more in vogue, as we add to the list of our favourites. After having been served up to a hundred different lovers, some battered nobleman finds us a dainty dish for himself.

Do you mean that by way of news? interrupted I as she uttered the last sentiment. Do you imagine me to be ignorant of these advantages? I have often conned them over in my mind, and they are but too alluring to a girl of my character. The attractions of the stage would be irresistible, were inclination all. But some little talent is indispensable; and I have not a spark. I have sometimes attempted to rehearse passages from plays before Arsenia. She was never satisfied with my performance; and that disgusted me with the profession. You are easily put out of conceit with yourself, replied Phenicia. Do not you know that these great actresses are very apt to be jealous? With all their vanity, they are afraid lest some newer face should put them out of countenance. In short, I would not be guided by Arsenia on that subject; she did not give her real opinion. In my judgment, and without meaning to flatter you, the theatre is your natural element. You have admirable powers, free and graceful action, a fine-toned voice, volubility of declamation, and such a turn of countenance! Ah! you little rogue! you will bring all the young fellows behind the scenes, if once you take to the boards!

She plied me with many flattering compliments besides; and made me recite some lines, only by way of enabling me to form my own judgment as to my theatrical genius. Now that she was my censor, it seemed quite another thing. She praised me up to the skies, and held all the actresses in Madrid as mere makeweights in the scale. After such a testimony, it would have been inexcusable to hesitate about my own merit. Arsenia stood attainted, nay, convicted of jealousy and treachery. There could be no question about my being everything that was delightful. Two players happened to drop in by accident, and Phenicia prevailed on me to repeat the lines I had already spouted; they fell into a sort of enthusiastic trance, whence they were roused only to launch out fervently in admiration of me. Literally, had they all three been flattering me up for a wager, they could not have adopted a more extravagant scale of panegyric. My modesty was not proof against such praise from those who were themselves praised. I began to think myself really worthy of something; and now was my whole heart and soul turned towards a theatrical life.

Since this is the case, said I to Phenicia, the affair is determined. I will follow your advice and engage in your company, if they will accept me. My friend, transported with joy at this proposal, clasped me in her arms; and her two companions seemed no less delighted than herself at finding me in that humour. It was settled that I should attend the theatre on the following day in the morning, and exhibit before the collected body the same sample of my talent as I had just displayed. If I had bought golden opinions from Phenicia and her friends, the actors in general were still more complimentary in their judgment, after I had recited but twenty lines before them. They gave me an engagement with the utmost willingness. Then there was nothing thought of but my first appearance. To make it as striking as possible, I laid out all the money remaining from the sale of my ring; and though my funds would not allow of being splendid in my dress, I discovered the art of substituting taste for glitter, and converting my poverty into a new grace.

At length I came out. What clapping of hands! what general admiration! It would be speaking faintly, my friend, to tell you downright that the spectators were all in an ecstacy. You must have heard with your own ears what a noise I made at Seville, to believe it. The whole talk of the town was about me, and the house was crowded for three weeks successively; so that this novelty restored the theatre to its popularity, when it was evidently beginning to decline. Thus did I come upon the stage, and step into public favour at once. But to come upon the stage with such distinction, is generally a prelude to coming upon the town; or at least to putting one's self up at auction to the best bidder. Twenty sparks of all ages, from seventeen to seventy, were on the list of candidates, and would have worn me in my newest gloss. Had I followed my own inclination, I should have chosen the youngest, and the most of a lady's man; but in our profession, interest and ambition must bear the sway, till we have feathered our nest; that is as invariable a rule as any in the prompt book. On this principle, Don Ambrosio de Nisana, a man in whom age and ugliness had done their worst, but rich, generous, and one of the most powerful noblemen in Andalusia, had the refusal of the bargain. It is true that he paid handsomely for it. He took a fine house for me, furnished in the extreme of magnificence, allowed me a man cook of the first eminence, two footmen, a lady's maid, and a thousand ducats a month for my personal expenses. Add to all this a rich wardrobe, and an elegant assortment of jewels.

What a revolution in my affairs! My poor brain was completely turned. I could not believe myself to be the same person. No wonder if girls soon forget the meanness and misery whence some man of quality has rescued them in a fit of caprice. My confession shall be without reserve: public applause, flattering speeches buzzed about on every side, and Don Ambrosio's passion kindled such a flame of self-conceit as kept me in a continual ferment of extravagance. I considered my talents as a patent of nobility. I put on the woman of fashion; and becoming as chary as I had hitherto been lavish of my amorous challengers, determined to look no lower than dukes, counts, or marquises.

My lord of Nisana brought some of his friends to sup with me every evening It was my care to invite the best companions among our actresses, and we wore away a good part of the night in laughing and drinking. I fell in very kindly with so delicious a life; but it lasted only six months. Men of rank are apt to be whimsical; but for that fault, they would be too heavenly. Don Ambrosio deserted me for a young coquette from Grenada, who had just brought a pretty person to the Seville market, and knew how to set off her wares to the best advantage. But I did not fret after him more than four-and twenty hours, His place was supplied by a young fellow of two-and-twenty, Don Lewis d' Alcacer, with whom few Spaniards could vie in point of face and figure.

You will ask me, doubtless, and it is natural to do so, why I selected so green a sprig of nobility for my paramour, when my own experience so strongly dissuaded from such a choice. But, besides that Don Lewis had neither father nor mother, and was already in possession of his fortune, you are to know that there is no danger of disagreeable consequences attaching to any but girls in a servile condition of life, or those unfortunate loose fish who are game for every sportsman. Ladies of our profession are privileged persons; we let off our charms like a rocket, and are not answerable for the damage where they fall; so much the worse for those families whose heirs we set in a blaze.

As for Alcacer and myself, we were so strongly attached to one another, that I verily believe, love never yet did such execution as when he took aim at us two. Our passion was of such a violent nature, that we seemed to be under the influence of some spell. Those who knew how well we were together, thought us the happiest pair in the world; but we, who knew best, found ourselves the most miserable. Though Don Lewis had as fine an outside as ever fell to the lot of man, he was at the same time so jealous, that there was no living for vexation at his unfounded surmises. It was of no use, knowing his weakness and humouring it, to lay an embargo on my looks, if ever a male creature peeped into harbour; his suspicious temper, seldom at a loss for some crime to impute, rendered my armed neutrality of no avail. Our most tender moments had always a spice of wrangling. There was no standing the brunt of it; patience could hold out no longer on either side, and we quarrelled more peaceably than we had loved. Could you believe that the last day of our being together was the happiest? both equally wearied out by the perpetual recurrence of unpleasant circumstances, we gave a loose to our transports when we embraced for the last time. We were like two wretched captives, breathing the fresh air of liberty after all the horrors of our prison-house.

Since that adventure, I have worn a breastplate against the little archer. No more amorous nonsense for me, at least to a troublesome excess! It is quite out of our line, to sigh and complain like Arcadian shepherdesses. Those should never give way to a passion in private, who hold it up to ridicule before the public.

While these events were passing in my domestic establishment, Fame had not hung her trumpet breathless on the willows; she spread it about universally that I was an inimitable actress. That celestial tattler, though bankrupt times out of number, still contrives to revive her credit; the comedians of Grenada therefore wrote to offer me an engagement in their company; and by way of evidence that the proposal was not to be scorned, they sent me a statement of their daily receipts and disbursements, with their terms, which seemed to be advantageous. That being the case, I closed, though grieved in my heart to part with Phenicia and Dorothea, whom I loved as well as woman is capable of loving woman. I left the first laudably employed in melting the plate of a little haggling goldsmith, whose vanity so far got the better of his avarice that he must needs have a theatrical heroine for his mistress. I forgot to tell you that on my translation to the stage, from mere whim, I changed the name of Laura to that of Estella; and it was under the latter name that I took this engagement at Grenada.

My first appearance was no less successful here than at Seville; and I soon felt myself wafted along by the sighs of my admirers. But resolving not to favour any except on honourable terms, I kept a guard of modesty in my intercourse with them, which threw dust in their eyes. Nevertheless, not to be the dupe of virtues which pay very indifferently, and were not exactly at home in their new mansion, I was balancing whether or not to take up with a young fellow of mean extraction, who had a place under government, and assumed the style of a gentleman in virtue of his office, with a good table and handsome equipage, when I saw the Marquis de Marialva for the first time. This Portuguese nobleman, travelling over Spain from mere curiosity, stopped at Grenada as he passed through it. He came to the play. I did not perform that evening. His examination of the actresses was very particular, and he found one to his liking. Their acquaintance commenced on the very next day; and the definitive treaty was very nearly concluded when I appeared upon the stage. What with some personal graces, and no little affectation in setting them off, the weather-cock veered about all on a sudden; my Portuguese was mine and mine only till death do us part. Yet, since the truth must be told, I knew perfectly that my sister of the sock and buskin had entrapped this nobleman, and spared no pains to chouse her out of her prize; to my success you are yourself a witness. She bears me no small grudge on that account; but the thing could not be avoided. She ought to reflect that it is the way of all female flesh; that the dearest friends play off the same trick upon one another, and put a good face upon it into the bargain.

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