CH. XI. -- The Prince of Spain's secret visit, and presents to Catalina.
I WENT to the Count de Lemos on the spur of the occasion, with five hundred double pistoles in my hand. You could not have come at a better time, said that nobleman. I have been talking with the prince; he has taken the bait, and burns with impatience to see Catalina. This very night he intends to slip privately out of the palace, and pay her a visit; it is a measure determined on, and our arrangements are already made. Give notice to the ladies, through the medium of the cash you have just brought; it is proper to let them know they have no ordinary lover to receive; and a matter of course that generosity in princes should be the herald of their partialities. As you will be of our party, take care to be in the way at bed-time: and as your carriage will be wanted, let it wait near the palace about midnight.
I immediately repaired to the ladies. Catalina was not visible, having just gone to lie down. I could only speak with Signora Mencia. Madam, said I, forgive my appearance here in the day-time, but there was no avoiding it; you must know that the Prince of Spain will be with you to-night; and here, added I, putting my pecuniary credentials into her hand, here is an offering which he lays on the Cytherean shrine, to propitiate the divinities of the temple. You may perceive, I have not entangled you in a sleeveless concern. You have been excessively kind indeed, answered she; but tell me, Signor de Santillane, does the prince love music? To distraction, replied I. There is nothing he so much delights in as a fine voice, with a delicate lute accompaniment So much the better, exclaimed she in a transport of joy; you give me great pleasure by saying so; for my niece has the pipe of a nightingale, and plays exquisitely on the lute: then her dancing is in the finest style! Heavens and earth! exclaimed I in my turn, here are accomplishments by wholesale, aunt; more than enough to make any girl's fortune! Any one of those talents would have been a sufficient dowry.
Having thus smoothed his reception, I waited for the prince's bed-time. When it was near at hand, I gave my coachman his orders, and went to the Count de Lemos, who told me that the prince, the sooner to get rid of the people about him, meant to feign a slight indisposition, and even to go to bed, the better to cajole his attendants; but that he would get up an hour afterwards, and go through a private door to a back staircase leading into the court-yard.
Conformably with their previous arrangements, he fixed my station. There had I to beat the hoof so long, that I began to suspect our forward sprig of royalty had gone another way, or else had changed his mind about Catalina; just as if princes ever began to be fickle, till the goad of novelty and curiosity began to be blunted. In short, I thought they had forgotten me, when two men came up. Finding them to be my party, I led the way to my carriage, into which they both got, and I upon the coach-box to direct the driver, whom I stopped fifty yards from the house, whither we walked. The door opened at our approach, and shut again as soon as we got in.
At first we were in absolute darkness, as on my former visit, though a small lamp was fixed to the wall on the present occasion. But the light which it shed was so faint, as only to render itself visible without assisting us. All this served only to heighten the romance in the fancy of its hero, fixed as he was in steadfast gaze at the sight of the ladies as they received him in a saloon whose brilliant illumination was more dazzling, when contrasted with the gloom of the avenue. The aunt and niece were in a tempting undress, where the science of coquetry was displayed in all its luxury and absolute sway. Our prince could have been happy with Signora Mencia, had the dear charmer Catalina been away; but as there was a choice, the younger, according to the rules of precedency in the court of Cupid, had the preference.
Well! prince, said the Count de Lemos, could you have desired a better specimen of beauty? They are both enchanting, answered the prince, and my heart may as well surrender at once; for the aunt would arrest it in its flight, if it attempted to sound a retreat from the niece's all-subduing charms.
After such compliments, as do not fall by wholesale to the share of aunts, he addressed his choicest terms of flattery to Catalina, who answered him in kind. As convenient personages of my stamp are allowed to mingle in the conversation of lovers, for the purpose of making fire hotter, I introduced the subject of singing and playing on the lute. This was the signal of fresh rapture! and the nymph, the muse, the anything but mortal, was supplicated to outtune the jingle of the spheres. She complied like a good-humoured goddess; played some tender airs, and sung so deliciously, that the prince flopped down on his knees in a tumult of love and pleasure. But scenes like these are vapid in description: suffice it to say that hours glided away like moments in this sweet delirium, till the approach of day warned the sober plotters of the lunacy to provide for their patient's safety, and their own. When the parties were all snugly housed, we gave ourselves as much credit for the negotiation as if we had patched up a marriage with a princess.
The next morning the Duke of Lerma desired to know all the particulars. Just as I had finished relating them, the Count de Lemos came in and said -- The Prince of Spain is so engrossed by Catalina; he has taken so decided a fancy to her, that he actually proposes to be constant. He wanted to have sent her jewels to the amount of two thousand pistoles to-day, but his finances wee aground. My dear Lemos, said he, addressing himself to me, you must absolutely get me that sum. I know it is very inconvenient; you have pawned your credit for me already, but my heart owns itself your debtor; and if ever I have the means of returning your kindness by more than empty words, your fortunes shall not suffer by your complaisance. In answer, I assured him that I had friends and credit, and promised to bring him what he wanted.
There is no difficulty about that, said the duke to his nephew. Santillane will bring you the money; or, to save trouble, he may purchase the jewels, for he is an admirable judge, especially of rubies. Are you not, Gil Blas? This stroke of satire was of course designed to entertain the count at my expense, and it was successful, for his curiosity could not but be excited to know the meaning of the mystery. No mystery at all, replied his uncle with a broad laugh. Only Santillane took it into his head one day to exchange a diamond for a ruby, and the barter operated equally to the advantage of his pocket and his penetration.
Had the minister stopped there, I should have come off cheaply; but he took the trouble of dressing out in aggravated colours the trick that Camilla and Don Raphael played me, with a most provoking enlargement of the circumstances most to the disadvantage of my sagacity. His excellency having enjoyed his joke, ordered me to attend the Count de Lemos to a jeweller's, where we selected trinkets for the Prince of Spain's inspection, and they were intrusted to my care to be delivered to Catalina.
There can be little doubt of my kind reception on the following night, when I displayed a fine pair of drop ear-rings, as the presents of my embassy. The two ladies, out of their wits at these costly tokens of the prince's love, suffered their tongues to run into a gossiping strain, while they were thanking me for introducing them into such worshipful society. In the excess of their joy, they forgot themselves a little. There escaped now and then certain peculiar idioms of speech, which made me suspect that the party in question was no such dainty morsel for royalty to feed upon. To ascertain precisely what degree of obligation I had conferred on the heir-apparent, I took my leave with the intention of coining to a right understanding with Scipio.