With a deep reverence, which expressed my thanks, I left the room quietly and returned to my apartment, very impatient to read the sonnet. Yet, before satisfying my wish, I could not help making some reflections on the situation. I began to think myself somebody since the gigantic stride I had made this evening at the cardinal's assembly. The Marchioness de G. had shewn in the most open way the interest she felt in me, and, under cover of her grandeur, had not hesitated to compromise herself publicly by the most flattering advances. But who would have thought of disapproving? A young abbe like me, without any importance whatever, who could scarcely pretend to her high protection! True, but she was precisely the woman to grant it to those who, feeling themselves unworthy of it, dared not shew any pretensions to her patronage. On that head, my modesty must be evident to everyone, and the marchioness would certainly have insulted me had she supposed me capable of sufficient vanity to fancy that she felt the slightest inclination for me. No, such a piece of self-conceit was not in accordance with my nature. Her cardinal himself had invited me to dinner. Would he have done so if he had admitted the possibility of the beautiful marchioness feeling anything for me? Of course not, and he gave me an invitation to dine with him only because he had understood, from the very words of the lady, that I was just the sort of person with whom they could converse for a few hours without any risk; to be sure, without any risk whatever. Oh, Master Casanova! do you really think so?
Well, why should I put on a mask before my readers? They may think me conceited if they please, but the fact of the matter is that I felt sure of having made a conquest of the marchioness. I congratulated myself because she had taken the first, most difficult, and most important step. Had she not done so, I should never have dared-to lay siege to her even in the most approved fashion; I should never have even ventured to dream of winning her. It was only this evening that I thought she might replace Lucrezia. She was beautiful, young, full of wit and talent; she was fond of literary pursuits, and very powerful in Rome; what more was necessary? Yet I thought it would be good policy to appear ignorant of her inclination for me, and to let her suppose from the very next day that I was in love with her, but that my love appeared to me hopeless. I knew that such a plan was infallible, because it saved her dignity. It seemed to me that Father Georgi himself would be compelled to approve such an undertaking, and I had remarked with great satisfaction that Cardinal Acquaviva had expressed his delight at Cardinal S. C.'s invitation—an honour which he had never yet bestowed on me himself. This affair might have very important results for me.
I read the marchioness's sonnet, and found it easy, flowing, and well written. It was composed in praise of the King of Prussia, who had just conquered Silesia by a masterly stroke. As I was copying it, the idea struck me to personify Silesia, and to make her, in answer to the sonnet, bewail that Love (supposed to be the author of the sonnet of the marchioness) could applaud the man who had conquered her, when that conqueror was the sworn enemy of Love.
It is impossible for a man accustomed to write poetry to abstain when a happy subject smiles upon his delighted imagination. If he attempted to smother the poetical flame running through his veins it would consume him. I composed my sonnet, keeping the same rhymes as in the original, and, well pleased with my muse, I went to bed.
The next morning the Abbe Gama came in just as I had finished recopying my sonnet, and said he would breakfast with me. He complimented me upon the honour conferred on me by the invitation of Cardinal S. C.
"But be prudent," he added, "for his eminence has the reputation of being jealous:"
I thanked him for his friendly advice, taking care to assure him that I had nothing to fear, because I did not feel the slightest inclination for the handsome marchioness.
Cardinal S. C. received me with great kindness mingled with dignity, to make me realize the importance of the favour he was bestowing upon me.
"What do you think," he enquired, "of the sonnet?"
"Monsignor, it is perfectly written, and, what is more, it is a charming composition. Allow me to return it to you with my thanks."
"She has much talent. I wish to shew you ten stanzas of her composition, my dear abbe, but you must promise to be very discreet about it."
"Your eminence may rely on me."
He opened his bureau and brought forth the stanzas of which he was the subject. I read them, found them well written, but devoid of enthusiasm; they were the work of a poet, and expressed love in the words of passion, but were not pervaded by that peculiar feeling by which true love is so easily discovered. The worthy cardinal was doubtless guilty of a very great indiscretion, but self-love is the cause of so many injudicious steps! I asked his eminence whether he had answered the stanzas.
"No," he replied, "I have not; but would you feel disposed to lend me your poetical pen, always under the seal of secrecy?"
"As to secrecy, monsignor, I promise it faithfully; but I am afraid the marchioness will remark the difference between your style and mine."
"She has nothing of my composition," said the cardinal; "I do not think she supposes me a fine poet, and for that reason your stanzas must be written in such a manner that she will not esteem them above my abilities."
"I will write them with pleasure, monsignor, and your eminence can form an opinion; if they do not seem good enough to be worthy of you, they need not be given to the marchioness."
"That is well said. Will you write them at once?"
"What! now, monsignor? It is not like prose."
"Well, well! try to let me have them to-morrow."
We dined alone, and his eminence complimented me upon my excellent appetite, which he remarked was as good as his own; but I was beginning to understand my eccentric host, and, to flatter him, I answered that he praised me more than I deserved, and that my appetite was inferior to his. The singular compliment delighted him, and I saw all the use I could make of his eminence.
Towards the end of the dinner, as we were conversing, the marchioness made her appearance, and, as a matter of course, without being announced. Her looks threw me into raptures; I thought her a perfect beauty. She did not give the cardinal time to meet her, but sat down near him, while I remained standing, according to etiquette.
Without appearing to notice me, the marchioness ran wittily over various topics until coffee was brought in. Then, addressing herself to me, she told me to sit down, just as if she was bestowing charity upon me.
"By-the-by, abbe," she said, a minute after, "have you read my sonnet?"
"Yes, madam, and I have had the honour to return it to his eminence. I have found it so perfect that I am certain it must have cost you a great deal of time."
"Time?" exclaimed the cardinal; "Oh! you do not know the marchioness."
"Monsignor," I replied, "nothing can be done well without time, and that is why I have not dared to chew to your eminence an answer to the sonnet which I have written in half an hour."
"Let us see it, abbe," said the marchioness; "I want to read it."
"Answer of Silesia to Love." This title brought the most fascinating blushes on her countenance. "But Love is not mentioned in the sonnet," exclaimed the cardinal. "Wait," said the marchioness, "we must respect the idea of the poet:"
She read the sonnet over and over, and thought that the reproaches addressed by Silesia to Love were very just. She explained my idea to the cardinal, making him understand why Silesia was offended at having been conquered by the King of Prussia.
"Ah, I see, I see!" exclaimed the cardinal, full of joy; "Silesia is a woman.... and the King of Prussia.... Oh! oh! that is really a fine idea!" And the good cardinal laughed heartily for more than a quarter of an hour. "I must copy that sonnet," he added, "indeed I must have it."
"The abbe," said the obliging marchioness, "will save you the trouble: I will dictate it to him."
I prepared to write, but his eminence suddenly exclaimed, "My dear marchioness, this is wonderful; he has kept the same rhymes as in your own sonnet: did you observe it?"
The beautiful marchioness gave me then a look of such expression that she completed her conquest. I understood that she wanted me to know the cardinal as well as she knew him; it was a kind of partnership in which I was quite ready to play my part.
As soon as I had written the sonnet under the charming woman's dictation, I took my leave, but not before the cardinal had told me that he expected me to dinner the next day.
I had plenty of work before me, for the ten stanzas I had to compose were of the most singular character, and I lost no time in shutting myself up in my room to think of them. I had to keep my balance between two points of equal difficulty, and I felt that great care was indispensable. I had to place the marchioness in such a position that she could pretend to believe the cardinal the author of the stanzas, and, at the same time, compel her to find out that I had written them, and that I was aware of her knowing it. It was necessary to speak so carefully that not one expression should breathe even the faintest hope on my part, and yet to make my stanzas blaze with the ardent fire of my love under the thin veil of poetry. As for the cardinal, I knew well enough that the better the stanzas were written, the more disposed he would be to sign them. All I wanted was clearness, so difficult to obtain in poetry, while a little doubtful darkness would have been accounted sublime by my new Midas. But, although I wanted to please him, the cardinal was only a secondary consideration, and the handsome marchioness the principal object.
As the marchioness in her verses had made a pompous enumeration of every physical and moral quality of his eminence, it was of course natural that he should return the compliment, and here my task was easy. At last having mastered my subject well, I began my work, and giving full career to my imagination and to my feelings I composed the ten stanzas, and gave the finishing stroke with these two beautiful lines from Ariosto:
Le angelicche bellezze nate al cielo
Non si ponno celar sotto alcum velo.
Rather pleased with my production, I presented it the next day to the cardinal, modestly saying that I doubted whether he would accept the authorship of so ordinary a composition. He read the stanzas twice over without taste or expression, and said at last that they were indeed not much, but exactly what he wanted. He thanked me particularly for the two lines from Ariosto, saying that they would assist in throwing the authorship upon himself, as they would prove to the lady for whom they were intended that he had not been able to write them without borrowing. And, as to offer me some consolation, he told me that, in recopying the lines, he would take care to make a few mistakes in the rhythm to complete the illusion.
We dined earlier than the day before, and I withdrew immediately after dinner so as to give him leisure to make a copy of the stanzas before the arrival of the lady.
The next evening I met the marchioness at the entrance of the palace, and offered her my arm to come out of her carriage. The instant she alighted, she said to me,
"If ever your stanzas and mine become known in Rome, you may be sure of my enmity."
"Madam, I do not understand what you mean."
"I expected you to answer me in this manner," replied the marchioness, "but recollect what I have said."
I left her at the door of the reception-room, and thinking that she was really angry with me, I went away in despair. "My stanzas," I said to myself, "are too fiery; they compromise her dignity, and her pride is offended at my knowing the secret of her intrigue with Cardinal S. C. Yet, I feel certain that the dread she expresses of my want of discretion is only feigned, it is but a pretext to turn me out of her favour. She has not understood my reserve! What would she have done, if I had painted her in the simple apparel of the golden age, without any of those veils which modesty imposes upon her sex!" I was sorry I had not done so. I undressed and went to bed. My head was scarcely on the pillow when the Abbe Gama knocked at my door. I pulled the door-string, and coming in, he said,
"My dear sir, the cardinal wishes to see you, and I am sent by the beautiful marchioness and Cardinal S. C., who desire you to come down."
"I am very sorry, but I cannot go; tell them the truth; I am ill in bed."
As the abbe did not return, I judged that he had faithfully acquitted himself of the commission, and I spent a quiet night. I was not yet dressed in the morning, when I received a note from Cardinal S. C. inviting me to dinner, saying that he had just been bled, and that he wanted to speak to me: he concluded by entreating me to come to him early, even if I did not feel well.
The invitation was pressing; I could not guess what had caused it, but the tone of the letter did not forebode anything unpleasant. I went to church, where I was sure that Cardinal Acquaviva would see me, and he did. After mass, his eminence beckoned to me.
"Are you truly ill?" he enquired.
"No, monsignor, I was only sleepy."
"I am very glad to hear it; but you are wrong, for you are loved. Cardinal S. C. has been bled this morning."
"I know it, monsignor. The cardinal tells me so in this note, in which he invites me to dine with him, with your excellency's permission."
"Certainly. But this is amusing! I did not know that he wanted a third person."
"Will there be a third person?"
"I do not know, and I have no curiosity about it."
The cardinal left me, and everybody imagined that his eminence had spoken to me of state affairs.
I went to my new Maecenas, whom I found in bed.
"I am compelled to observe strict diet," he said to me; "I shall have to let you dine alone, but you will not lose by it as my cook does not know it. What I wanted to tell you is that your stanzas are, I am afraid, too pretty, for the marchioness adores them. If you had read them to me in the same way that she does, I could never have made up my mind to offer them." "But she believes them to be written by your eminence?"
"That is the essential point, monsignor."
"Yes; but what should I do if she took it into her head to compose some new stanzas for me?"
"You would answer through the same pen, for you can dispose of me night and day, and rely upon the utmost secrecy."
"I beg of you to accept this small present; it is some negrillo snuff from Habana, which Cardinal Acquaviva has given me."
The snuff was excellent, but the object which contained it was still better. It was a splendid gold-enamelled box. I received it with respect, and with the expression of the deepest gratitude.
If his eminence did not know how to write poetry, at least he knew how to be generous, and in a delicate manner, and that science is, at least in my estimation, superior to the other for a great nobleman.
At noon, and much to my surprise, the beautiful marchioness made her appearance in the most elegant morning toilet.
"If I had known you were in good company," she said to the cardinal, "I would not have come."
"I am sure, dear marchioness, you will not find our dear abbe in the way."
"No, for I believe him to be honest and true."
I kept at a respectful distance, ready to go away with my splendid snuff-box at the first jest she might hurl at me.
The cardinal asked her if she intended to remain to dinner.
"Yes," she answered; "but I shall not enjoy my dinner, for I hate to eat alone."
"If you would honour him so far, the abbe would keep you company."
She gave me a gracious look, but without uttering one word.
This was the first time I had anything to do with a woman of quality, and that air of patronage, whatever kindness might accompany it, always put me out of temper, for I thought it made love out of the question. However, as we were in the presence of the cardinal, I fancied that she might be right in treating me in that fashion.
The table was laid out near the cardinal's bed, and the marchioness, who ate hardly anything, encouraged me in my good appetite.
"I have told you that the abbe is equal to me in that respect," said S. C.
"I truly believe," answered the marchioness, "that he does not remain far behind you; but," added she with flattery, "you are more dainty in your tastes."
"Would her ladyship be so good as to tell me in what I have appeared to her to be a mere glutton? For in all things I like only dainty and exquisite morsels."
"Explain what you mean by saying in all things," said the cardinal. Taking the liberty of laughing, I composed a few impromptu verses in which I named all I thought dainty and exquisite. The marchioness applauded, saying that she admired my courage.
"My courage, madam, is due to you, for I am as timid as a hare when I am not encouraged; you are the author of my impromptu."
"I admire you. As for myself, were I encouraged by Apollo himself, I could not compose four lines without paper and ink."
"Only give way boldly to your genius, madam, and you will produce poetry worthy of heaven."
"That—is my opinion, too," said the cardinal. "I entreat you to give me permission to skew your ten stanzas to the abbe."
"They are not very good, but I have no objection provided it remains between us."
The cardinal gave me, then, the stanzas composed by the marchioness, and I read them aloud with all the expression, all the feeling necessary to such reading.
"How well you have read those stanzas!" said the marchioness; "I can hardly believe them to be my own composition; I thank you very much. But have the goodness to give the benefit of your reading to the stanzas which his eminence has written in answer to mine. They surpass them much."
"Do not believe it, my dear abbe," said the cardinal, handing them to me. "Yet try not to let them lose anything through your reading."
There was certainly no need of his eminence enforcing upon me such a recommendation; it was my own poetry. I could not have read it otherwise than in my best style, especially when I had before me the beautiful woman who had inspired them, and when, besides, Bacchus was in me giving courage to Apollo as much as the beautiful eyes of the marchioness were fanning into an ardent blaze the fire already burning through my whole being.
I read the stanzas with so much expression that the cardinal was enraptured, but I brought a deep carnation tint upon the cheeks of the lovely marchioness when I came to the description of those beauties which the imagination of the poet is allowed to guess at, but which I could not, of course, have gazed upon. She snatched the paper from my hands with passion, saying that I was adding verses of my own; it was true, but I did not confess it. I was all aflame, and the fire was scorching her as well as me.
The cardinal having fallen asleep, she rose and went to take a seat on the balcony; I followed her. She had a rather high seat; I stood opposite to her, so that her knee touched the fob-pocket in which was my watch. What a position! Taking hold gently of one of her hands, I told her that she had ignited in my soul a devouring flame, that I adored her, and that, unless some hope was left to me of finding her sensible to my sufferings, I was determined to fly away from her for ever.
"Yes, beautiful marchioness, pronounce my sentence."
"I fear you are a libertine and an unfaithful lover."
"I am neither one nor the other."
With these words I folded her in my arms, and I pressed upon her lovely lips, as pure as a rose, an ardent kiss which she received with the best possible grace. This kiss, the forerunner of the most delicious pleasures, had imparted to my hands the greatest boldness; I was on the point of.... but the marchioness, changing her position, entreated me so sweetly to respect her, that, enjoying new voluptuousness through my very obedience, I not only abandoned an easy victory, but I even begged her pardon, which I soon read in the most loving look.
She spoke of Lucrezia, and was pleased with my discretion. She then alluded to the cardinal, doing her best to make me believe that there was nothing between them but a feeling of innocent friendship. Of course I had my opinion on that subject, but it was my interest to appear to believe every word she uttered. We recited together lines from our best poets, and all the time she was still sitting down and I standing before her, with my looks rapt in the contemplation of the most lovely charms, to which I remained insensible in appearance, for I had made up my mind not to press her that evening for greater favours than those I had already received.
The cardinal, waking from his long and peaceful siesta, got up and joined us in his night-cap, and good-naturedly enquired whether we had not felt impatient at his protracted sleep. I remained until dark and went home highly pleased with my day's work, but determined to keep my ardent desires in check until the opportunity for complete victory offered itself.
From that day, the charming marchioness never ceased to give me the marks of her particular esteem, without the slightest constraint; I was reckoning upon the carnival, which was close at hand, feeling certain that the more I should spare her delicacy, the more she would endeavour to find the opportunity of rewarding my loyalty, and of crowning with happiness my loving constancy. But fate ordained otherwise; Dame Fortune turned her back upon me at the very moment when the Pope and Cardinal Acquaviva were thinking of giving me a really good position.
The Holy Father had congratulated me upon the beautiful snuff-box presented to me by Cardinal S. C., but he had been careful never to name the marchioness. Cardinal Acquaviva expressed openly his delight at his brother-cardinal having given me a taste of his negrillo snuff in so splendid an envelope; the Abbe Gama, finding me so forward on the road to success, did not venture to counsel me any more, and the virtuous Father Georgi gave me but one piece of advice-namely, to cling to the lovely marchioness and not to make any other acquaintances.
Such was my position-truly a brilliant one, when, on Christmas Day, the lover of Barbara Dalacqua entered my room, locked the door, and threw himself on the sofa, exclaiming that I saw him for the last time.
"I only come to beg of you some good advice."
"On what subject can I advise you?"
"Take this and read it; it will explain everything."
It was a letter from his mistress; the contents were these:
"I am pregnant of a child, the pledge of our mutual love; I can no longer have any doubt of it, my beloved, and I forewarn you that I have made up my mind to quit Rome alone, and to go away to die where it may please God, if you refuse to take care of me and save me. I would suffer anything, do anything, rather than let my father discover the truth."
"If you are a man of honour," I said, "you cannot abandon the poor girl. Marry her in spite of your father, in spite of her own, and live together honestly. The eternal Providence of God will watch over you and help you in your difficulties:"
My advice seemed to bring calm to his mind, and he left me more composed.
At the beginning of January, 1744, he called again, looking very cheerful. "I have hired," he said, "the top floor of the house next to Barbara's dwelling; she knows it, and to-night I will gain her apartment through one of the windows of the garret, and we will make all our arrangements to enable me to carry her off. I have made up my mind; I have decided upon taking her to Naples, and I will take with us the servant who, sleeping in the garret, had to be made a confidante of."
"God speed you, my friend!"
A week afterwards, towards eleven o'clock at night, he entered my room accompanied by an abbe.
"What do you want so late?"
"I wish to introduce you to this handsome abbe."
I looked up, and to my consternation I recognized Barbara.
"Has anyone seen you enter the house?" I enquired.
"No; and if we had been seen, what of it? It is only an abbe. We now pass every night together."
"I congratulate you."
"The servant is our friend; she has consented to follow us, and all our arrangements are completed."
"I wish you every happiness. Adieu. I beg you to leave me."
Three or four days after that visit, as I was walking with the Abbe Gama towards the Villa Medicis, he told me deliberately that there would be an execution during the night in the Piazza di Spagna.
"What kind of execution?"
"The bargello or his lieutenant will come to execute some 'ordine santissimo', or to visit some suspicious dwelling in order to arrest and carry off some person who does not expect anything of the sort."
"How do you know it?"
"His eminence has to know it, for the Pope would not venture to encroach upon his jurisdiction without asking his permission."
"And his eminence has given it?"
"Yes, one of the Holy Father's auditors came for that purpose this morning."
"But the cardinal might have refused?"
"Of course; but such a permission is never denied."
"And if the person to be arrested happened to be under the protection of the cardinal—what then?"
"His eminence would give timely warning to that person."
We changed the conversation, but the news had disturbed me. I fancied that the execution threatened Barbara and her lover, for her father's house was under the Spanish jurisdiction. I tried to see the young man but I could not succeed in meeting him, and I was afraid lest a visit at his home or at M. Dalacqua's dwelling might implicate me. Yet it is certain that this last consideration would not have stopped me if I had been positively sure that they were threatened; had I felt satisfied of their danger, I would have braved everything.