CH. VI -- History of Don Gaston de Cogollos and Donna Helena de Galisteo.
IT will be very soon four years since I left Madrid to go and see my aunt Donna Eleonora de Laxarilla at Coria: she is one of the richest dowagers in Old Castile, with myself for her only heir. Scarcely had I got within her doors, when love invaded my repose. The windows of my room faced the lattice of a lady living opposite: but the street was narrow, and her blinds pervious to the eye. It was an opportunity too delicious to be lost; and I found my neighbour so lovely that my heart was captivated. The subject of my sentry-watch could not be mistaken. She marked it well; but she was not a girl to glory in the detection, still less to encourage my fooleries.
It was natural to inquire the name of this mighty conqueror. I learnt it to be Donna Helena, only daughter of Don George de Galisteo, lord of a large domain near Coria. She had innumerable offers of marriage; but her father repulsed them all, because he meant to bestow her hand on his nephew, Don Austin de Olighera, who had uninterrupted access to his cousin while the settlements were preparing. This was no bar to my hopes: on the contrary, it whetted my eagerness: and the insolent pleasure of supplanting a favoured rival was, perhaps, at bottom equally my motive with a more noble passion. My visual artillery was obstinately planted against my unyielding fair. Her attendant Felicia was not without the incense of a glance, to soften her rigid constancy in my favour; while nods and becks stood for the current coin of language. But all these efforts of gallantry were in vain -- the maid was impregnable like her mistress -- never was there such a pair of cold and cruel ones.
The commerce of the eyes being so unthrifty, I had recourse to different agents. My scouts were on the watch to hunt out what acquaintance Felicia might have in town. They discovered an old lady, by name Theodora, to be her most intimate friend, and that they often met. Delighted at the intelligence, I went point blank to Theodora, and engaged her by presents in my interest. She took my cause up heartily, promised to contrive an interview for me with her friend, and kept her engagement the very next day.
I am no longer the wretch of yesterday, said I to Felicia, since my sufferings have melted you to pity. How deep is my debt to your friend for her kind interference in my behalf. Sir, answered she, Theodora can do what she pleases with me. She has brought me over to your side of the question; and if I can do you a kindness, you shall soon be at the summit of your wishes; but, with all my partiality in your favour, I know not how far my efforts may be successful. It would be cruel to mislead you: the prize will not be gained without a severe conflict. The object of your passion is betrothed to another gentleman, and her character most inauspicious to your designs. Such is her pride, and so closely locked are her secrets within her own breast, that if, by constancy and assiduities, you could extort from her a few sighs, fancy not that her haughty spirit would indulge your ears with their music. Ah! my dear Felicia, exclaimed I in an agony, why will you thus magnify the obstacles in my way? To set them in array will kill me. Lead me on with false hopes, if you will; but do not drive me to despair. With these words I took one of her hands, pressed it between mine, and slid a diamond on her finger value three hundred pistoles, with such a moving compliment as made her weep again.
Such speeches and corresponding actions deserved some scanty comfort. She smoothed a little the rugged path of love. Sir, said she, what I have just been telling you need not quite quench your hope. Your rival, it is true, is in possession of the ground. He comes back and fore as he pleases, he toys with her as often as he likes, but all that is in your favour. The habit of constant intercourse sheds a languor over their meetings. They part without pain, and come together without emotion. One would take them for man and wife. In a word, my mistress has no marks of violent love for Don Austin. Besides, in point of person, there is such a difference between you and him as cannot fail to catch the eye of a nice observer like Donna Helena. Therefore do not be cast down. Continue your particular attentions. You shall have a second in me. I shall let no opportunity escape of pointing out to my mistress the merit of all your exertions to please her. In vain shall she intrench herself behind reserve. In spite of guard and garrison, I will ransack the muster-roll of her sentiments.
Now were my open attacks and secret ambuscades more fiercely pointed against the daughter of Don George. Among the rest, I entertained her with a serenade. After the concert Felicia, to sound her mistress, begged to know how she had been entertained. The singer had a good voice, said Donna Helena. But how did you like the words? replied the abigail. I scarcely noted them, returned the lady; the music engrossed my whole attention. The poetry excited as little curiosity as its author. If that is the case, exclaimed the chambermaid, poor Don Gaston do Cogollos is reckoning without his host; and a miserable spendthrift of his glances, to be always ogling at our lattice-work. Perhaps it may not be he, said the mistress with petrifying indifference, but some other spark, announcing his passion by this concert. Excuse me, answered Felicia, it is Don Gaston himself who accosted me this morning in the street, and implored me to assure you how he adored, in defiance of your rigorous repulses: but that he should esteem himself the most blest of mortals, if you would allow him to soothe his desponding thoughts by all the most delicate and impassioned attentions. Judge now if I can be mistaken, after so open an avowal.
Don George's daughter changed countenance at once, and said to her servant with a severe frown, You might well have dispensed with the relation of this impertinent discourse. Bring me no more such idle tales; and tell this young madman, when next he accosts you, to play off his shallow artifices on some more accommodating fool; but, at all events, let him choose a more gentlemanly recreation than that of lounging all day at his window, and prying into the privacy of my apartment.
This message was faithfully delivered at my next interview with Felicia, who assured me that her mistress's modes of speech were not to be taken in their literal construction, but that my affairs were in the best possible train. For my part, being little read in the science of coquetry, and finding no favourable sense on the face of the author's original words, I was half out of humour with the wire-drawn comments of the critic. She laughed at my misgiving, and asked her friend for pen, ink, and paper, saying: Sir knight of the doleful countenance, write immediately to Donna Helena as dolefully as you look. Make echo ring with your sufferings; outsigh the river's murmur; and, above all, let rocks and woods resound with the prohibition of appearing at your window. Then pawn your existence on obeying her, though without the possibility ever to redeem the pledge. Turn all that nonsense into pretty sentences, as you gay deceivers so well know how to do, and leave the rest to me. The event, I flatter myself will redound more than you are aware to the honour of my penetration.
He must have been a strange lover who would not have profited by so opportune an occasion of writing to his mistress. My letter was couched in the most pathetic terms. Felicia smiled at its contents; and said, that if the women knew the art of infatuating men, the men in return had borrowed their influence over women from the arch wheedler himself. My privy counsellor took the note, and went back to Don George's, with a special injunction that my windows should be fast shut for some days.
Madam, said she, going up to Donna Helena, I met Don Gaston. He must needs endeavour to come round me with his flattering speeches. In tremulous accents, like a culprit pleading against his sentence, he begged to know whether I had spoken to you on his behalf. Then, in prompt and faithful compliance with your orders, I snapped up the words out of his mouth. To be sure, my tongue did run at a fine rate against him. I called him all manner of names, and left him in the street like a stock, staring at my termagant loquacity. I am delighted, answered Donna Helena, that you have disengaged me from that troublesome person. But there was no occasion to have snubbed him so unmercifully. A creature of your degree should always keep a good tongue in its mouth. Madam, replied the domestic, one cannot get rid of a determined lover by mincing one's words, though it comes to much the same thing when one flies into a passion. Don Gaston, for instance, was not to be bullied out of his senses. After having given it him on both sides of his ears, as I told you, I went on that errand of yours to the house of your relation. The lady, as ill-luck would have it, kept me longer than she ought. I say longer than she ought, because my plague and torment met me on my return. Who the deuce would have thought of seeing him? It put me all in a twitter; but then my tongue, which at other times is apt to be in a twitter, stuck motionless in my mouth. While my tongue stuck motionless in my mouth, what did he do? He slid a paper into my hand without giving me time to consider whether I should take it or no, and made off in a moment.
After this introduction, she drew my letter from under her stays, and gave it with half a banter to her mistress, who affected to read it in humorous scorn, but digested the contents most greedily, and then put on the starch, offended prude. In good earnest, Felicia, said she with all the gravity she could assume, you were extremely off your guard, quite bewildered and fascinated, to have taken the charge of such an epistle. What construction would Don Gaston put upon it? What must I think of it myself? You give me reason, by this strange behaviour, to mistrust your fidelity, while he must suspect me of encouraging his odious suit. Alas! he may, perhaps, lay that flattering unction to his soul, that my love is legible in these characters, and not his trespass. Only consider how you lay my towering pride. Oh! quite the reverse, madam, answered the petticoated pleader; it is impossible for him to think that; and if he did, he would soon be convinced with a flea in his ear. I shall tell him, when next we meet, that I have delivered his letter, that you glanced at the superscription with petrifying indifference, and then, without reading a word, tore it into ten thousand pieces. You may swear that I did not read it with a safe conscience, replied Donna Helena. I should be puzzled to retrace a single sentiment. Don George's daughter, not contented with these words, suited the action to them, tore my letter, and imposed silence on my advocate.
As I had promised no longer to play the lover at my window, the farce of obedience was kept up for several days. Ogling being interdicted, my courtship was doomed to enter in at my Helena's obdurate ears. One night I at tended under her balcony with musicians; the first bars of the serenade were already playing, when a swaggering blade, sword in hand, rushed in upon our harmony, laying about him to the right and left, to the utter discomfiture of the troop. Such mad warfare fired my tilting propensities to equal fury. The affray became serious. Donna Helena and her maid were disturbed by the clash of swords. They looked out at their lattice, and saw two men engaged. Their cries roused Don George and his servants. The whole neighbourhood was assembled to part the combatants. But they came too late: on the field of battle, bathed in his own blood and almost lifeless, lay my unfortunate body. They carried me to my aunt's, and sent for the best surgical assistance in the place.
All the world was merciful, and wished me well, especially Donna Helena, whose heart was now unmasked. Her forced severity yielded to her natural feelings. Would you believe it? The cold, relentless, insensible, was kindled into the warmest of love's votaries. She wore out the remainder of the night in weeping with her faithful confidante, and giving her cousin, Don Austin de Olighera, to perdition: for him they taxed with the plotted massacre, and the bill was a true one. He could hide his heart as well as his cousin; he therefore watched my motions, without seeming to suspect them; and fancying them not to be without a corresponding impulse, he resolved not to be sacrificed with impunity. The accident was an awkward one to me, but it ended in overpowering rapture. Dangerous as my wound was, the surgeons soon brought me about. I was still confined to my chamber, when my aunt, Donna Eleonora, went over to Don George, and made proposals for Donna Helena. He consented the more readily to the marriage, as he never expected to see Don Austin again. The good old man was afraid of his daughter's not liking me, because cousin Olighera had kept her company; but she was so tractable to the parental behest, as to furnish grounds for believing that in Spain, as in other countries, the species, not the individual, is the object with the sex.
Felicia, at our first private meeting, communicated the emotions of her mistress on my misfortune. Now, like another Paris, I thought Troy well lost for my Helen, and blessed the happy consequences of my wound. Don George allowed me to speak with his daughter in presence of her attendant. What a heavenly interview! I begged and prayed the lady so earnestly to tell me whether her sufferance of my vows was forced upon her by her father, that she at length confessed her obedience to be in unison with her inclinations. After so delicious a declaration, my whole soul was given up to love and pleasurable gratifications. Our nuptials were to be graced by a magnificent procession of all the principal people in Coria and the neighbourhood.
I gave a splendid party at my aunt's country-house, in the suburbs on the side of Manroi. Don George, his daughter, the family, and friends on both sides were present. There was a concert of vocal and instrumental music, with a company of strolling players, to represent a comedy. In the middle of the festivities, some one whispered me that a man wanted to speak with me in the hall. I got up from table to go and see who it was. The stranger looked like a gentleman's servant. He put a letter into my hand, containing these words:
"If you have any sense of honour, as a knight of your order ought to have, you will not fail to attend to-morrow morning in the plain of Manroi. There you will find an antagonist, ready to give you your revenge for his former attack upon your person, or, what he rather hopes and meditates, to spoil your connubial transports with Donna Helena.
"DON AUSTIN DE OLIGHERA."
If love is a Spanish passion, revenge is the Spanish lunacy. Such a note as this was not to be read with composure. At the mere subscription of Don Austin, there kindled in my veins a fire, which almost made me forget the claims of hospitality. I was tempted to steal away from my company, and seek my antagonist on the instant. For fear of disturbing the merriment, however, I bridled in my rage, and said to the messenger: My friend, you may tell your employer that I shall meet him on the appointed spot at sun-rise, and resume the contest with obstinacy equal to his own.
After sending this answer, I resumed my seat at table with so composed a mien, that no creature had the least suspicion of what had occurred. During the rest of the day, I gave myself up to the pleasures of the festival, which ended not till midnight. The guests then returned to town, but I staid behind, under pretext of taking the air on the following morning. Instead of going to bed, I watched for the dawn with maddening impatience. With the first ray I got on horseback, and rode alone towards Manroi. On the plain was a horseman, riding up to me at full speed. I pushed forward, and we met half way. It was my rival. Knight, said he, superciliously, it is against my will that I meet you a second time on the same occasion, but you have brought your fate on yourself. After the adventure of the serenade, you ought to have waived your pretensions to Don George's daughter, or at least to have been assured that the support of them must cost you dearer than a single encounter. You are too much elated, answered I, with an advantage which is less owing, perhaps, to your superior skill, than to the darkness of the night. Remember, that victory is of the same blind family with fortune. It shall be my lot to teach you, replied he with insulting scorn, that I have unsealed the eyes of both.
At this proud defiance, we both dismounted, tied our horses to a tree, and engaged with equal fury. I must candidly acknowledge the prowess of my antagonist, who was a consummate master of fencing. My life was exposed to the greatest possible danger. Nevertheless, as the strong is often vanquished by the weak, my rival, in spite of all his science, received a thrust through the heart, and fell a lifeless corpse.
I immediately returned, and told a confidential servant what had happened, requesting him to take horse and acquaint my aunt, before the officers of justice could get intelligence of the event. He was also to obtain from her a supply of money and jewels, and then join me at the first inn as you enter Plazencia.
All this was performed within three hours. Donna Eleonora rather triumphed than mourned over a catastrophe, which restored my injured honour; and sent me large remittances for my travels abroad, till the affair had blown over.
Not to dwell on indifferent circumstances, suffice it to say, that I embarked for Italy, and equipped myself so as to make a respectable figure at the several courts.
While I was endeavouring to beguile the weary hours of absence, Helena was weeping at home from the same cause. Instead of joining in the family resentment, her heart was panting for a compromise, and for my speedy return. Six months had already elapsed, and I firmly believe that her constancy would have been proof against the track of time, had time been seconded by no more powerful ally. Don Blas de Combados, a gentleman from the western coast of Galicia, came to Coria, to take possession of a rich inheritance unsuccessfully contested by a near relation. He liked that country so much better than his own, that he made it his principal residence. Combados was a personable man. His manners were gentle and well-bred, his conversation most insinuating. With such a passport, he soon got into the best company, and knew all the family concerns of the place.
It was not long before he heard of Don George's daughter, and of her extraordinary beauty. This touched his curiosity nearly; he was eager to behold so formidable a lady. For this purpose, he endeavoured to worm himself into the good graces of her father, and succeeded so well, that the old gentleman, already looking on him as a son-in-law, gave him free admission to the house, and the liberty of conversing with Donna Helena in his presence. The Galician soon became deeply enamoured of her: indeed, it was the common fate of all who had ever beheld her charms. He opened his heart to Don George, who consented to his paying his addresses, but told him that so far from offering violence to her inclination, he should never interfere in her choice. Hereupon Don Blas pressed every device that impassioned ingenuity could suggest into his service, to melt and warm the icicles of reserve; but the lady was impenetrable to his arts, fast bound in the fetters of an earlier love. Felicia, however, was in the new suitor's interest, convinced of his merit by the universal argument. All the faculties of her soul were called forth in his cause. On the other hand, the father urged his wishes and entreaties. Thus was Donna Helena tormented for a whole year with their importunities, and yet her faith continued unshaken.
Combados finding that Don George and Felicia took up his cause with very little success, proposed an expedient for conquering prejudice to the following effect. We will suppose a merchant of Coria to have received a letter from his Italian correspondent, in which, among the news of the day, there shall be the following paragraph: "A Spanish gentleman, Don Gaston de Cogollos, has lately arrived at the court of Parma. He is said to he nephew and sole heir to a rich widow of Coria. He is paying his addresses to a nobleman's daughter; but the family wishes to ascertain the validity of his pretensions. Send me word, therefore, whether you know this Don Gaston, together with the amount of his aunt's fortune. On your answer the marriage will depend. Parma, day of, &c."
The old gentleman considered this trick as a mere ebullition of humour, a lawful stratagem of amorous warfare; and the jade of a go-between, with conscience still more callous than her master's, was delighted with the probability of the manoeuvre. It seemed to be so much the more happily imagined, as they knew Helena to be a proud girl, capable of taking decisive measures, in the moment of surprise and indignation. Don George undertook to be the herald of my fickleness, and by way of colouring the contrivance more naturally, to confront the pretended correspondent with her. This project was executed as soon as formed. The father, with counterfeit emotions of displeasure, said to Donna Helena: Daughter, it is not enough now to tell you that our relations inveigh against an alliance with Don Austin's murderer; a still stronger reason henceforward presses, to detach you from Don Gaston. It may well overwhelm you with shame, to have been his dupe so long. Here is an undeniable proof of his inconstancy. Only read this letter just received by a merchant of Coria from Italy. The trembling Helena caught at this forged paper; glanced over the writing; then weighed every expression, and stood aghast at the import of the whole. A keen pang of disappointment wrung from her a few reluctant tears; but pride came to her assistance; she wiped away the falling drops of weakness, and said to her father in a determined tone: Sir, you have just been witness of my folly; now bear testimony to my triumph over myself. The delusion is past; Don Gaston is the object of my utter contempt. I am ready to meet Don Blas at the altar, and be beforehand with the traitor in the pledge of our transferred affections. Don George, transported with joy at this change, embraced his daughter, extolled her spirit to the skies, and hastened the necessary preparations, with all the self-complacency of a successful plotter.
Thus was Donna Helena snatched from me. She threw herself into the arms of Combados in a pet, not listening to the secret whispers of love within her breast, nor suspecting a story which ought to have seemed so improbable in the annals of true passion. The haughty are always the victims of their own rash conclusions. Resentment of insulted beauty triumphed wholly over the suggestions of tenderness. And yet, a few days after marriage, there came over her some feelings of remorse for her precipitation; it struck her that the letter might have been a forgery; and the very possibility disturbed her peace. But the enamoured Don Blas left his wife no time to nurse up thoughts injurious to
their new-found joys; a succession of gaiety and pleasure kept her in a thoughtless whirl, and shielded her from the pangs of unavailing repentance.
She appeared to be in high good humour with so spirit-stirring a husband; so that they were living together in perfect unanimity, when my aunt adjusted my affair with Don Austin's relations. Of this she wrote me word to Italy. I returned on the wings of love. Donna Eleonora, not having announced the marriage, informed me of it on my arrival; and remarking what pain it gave me, said: You are in the wrong, nephew, to shew so much feeling for a faithless fair. Banish from your memory a person so unworthy to share in its tender recollections.
As my aunt did not know how Donna Helena had been played upon, she had reason to talk as she did: nor could she have given me better advice. To affect indifference, if not to conquer my passion, was my bounden duty. Yet there could be no harm in just inquiring by what means this union had been brought to bear. To get at the truth, I determined on applying to Felicia's friend Theodora. There I met with Felicia herself, who was confounded at my unwelcome presence, and would have escaped from the necessity of explanation. But I stopped her. Why do you avoid me? said I. Has your perjured mistress forbidden you to give ear to my complaints? or would you make a merit with the ungrateful woman, of your voluntary refusal?
Sir, answered the plotting abigail, I confess my fault, and throw myself on your mercy. Your appearance here has filled me with remorse. My mistress has been betrayed, and unhappily in part by my agency. The particulars of their infernal device followed this avowal, with an endeavour to make me amends for its lamentable consequence. To this effect, she offered me her services with her mistress, and promised to undeceive her; in a word, to work night and day, that she might soften the rigour of my sufferings, and open the career of hope.
I pass over the numberless contradictions she experienced, before she could accomplish the projected interview. It was at length arranged to admit me privately, while Don Blas was at his hunting-seat. The plot did not linger. The husband went into the country, and they sent for me to his lady's apartment.
My onset was reproachful in the extreme, but my mouth was shut upon the subject. It is useless to look back upon the past, said the lady. It can be no part of our present intention to work upon each other's feelings; and you are grievously mistaken, if you fancy me inclined to flatter your aspiring hopes. My sole inducement for receiving you here was to tell you personally, that you have only henceforth to forget me. Perhaps I might have been better satisfied with my lot, had it been united with yours; but since heaven has ordered it otherwise, we must submit to its decrees.
What! madam, answered I, is it not enough to have lost you, to see my successful rival in quiet possession of all my soul holds dear, but I must also banish you from my thoughts? You would tear from me even my passion, my only remaining blessing! And think you that a man, whom you have once enchanted, can recover his self-possession? Know yourself better, and cease to enforce impracticable behests. Well then! if so, rejoined she with hurried importunity, do you cease to flatter yourself with interesting my gratitude or my pity. In one short word, the wife of Don Blas shall never be the mistress of Don Gaston. Let us at once end a conversation at which delicacy revolts m spite of virtue, and peremptorily forbids its longer continuance.
I now threw myself at the lady's feet in despair. All the powers of language and of tears were called forth to soften her. But even this served only to excite some inbred sentiments of compassion, stifled as soon as born, and sacrificed at the shrine of duty. After having fruitlessly exhausted all my stores of tender persuasion, rage took possession of my breast. I drew my sword, and would have fallen on its point before the inexorable Helena, but she saw my design and prevented it. Stay your rash hand, Cogollos, said she. Is it thus that you consult my reputation? In dying thus and here, you will brand me with dishonour, and my husband with the imputation of murder.
In the agony of my despair, far from yielding to these suggestions, I only struggled against the preventive efforts of the two women, and should have struggled too successfully, if Don Blas had not appeared to second them. He had been apprized of our assignation; and instead of going into the country, had concealed himself behind the hangings, to overhear our conference. Don Gaston, cried he, as he arrested my uplifted arm, recall your scattered senses, and no longer give a loose to these mad transports.
Here I could hold no longer. Is it for you, said I, to turn me from my resolution? You ought rather yourself to plunge a dagger in my bosom. My love, with all its train of miseries, is an insult to you. Have you not surprised me in your wife's apartment at this unseasonable hour? what greater provocation can you want for your revenge? Stab me, and rid yourself of a man, who can only give up the adoration of Donna Helena with his life. It is in vain, answered Don Blas, that you endeavour to interest my honour in your destruction. You are sufficiently punished for your rashness; and my wife's imprudence, in giving you this opportunity of indulging it, is sanctified by the purity of her sentiments. Take my advice, Cogollos: shrink not effeminately from your wayward destiny, but bear up against it with the patient courage of a hero.
The prudent Galician, by such language, gradually composed the ferment of my mind, and waked me once more to virtue. I withdrew in the determination of removing far from the scene of my folly, and went for Madrid, two days afterwards. There, pursuing the career of fortune and preferment, I appeared at court, and laid myself out for connections. But it was my ill luck to attach myself particularly to the Marquis of Villareal, a Portuguese grandee, who, lying under a suspicion of intending to emancipate his country from the Spanish yoke, is now in the castle of Alicant. As the Duke of Lerma knew me to be closely connected with this nobleman, he gave orders for my arrest and detention here. That minister thought me capable of engaging in such a project -- he could not have offered a more outrageous affront to a man of noble birth and a Castilian.
Don Gaston thus ended his story. By way of consolation I said to him, Illustrious sir, your honour can receive no taint from this temporary detainer, and your interest will probably be promoted by it in the end. When the Duke of Lerma shall be convinced of your innocence, he will not fail to give you a considerable post, and thus retrieve the character of a gentleman unjustly accused of treason.