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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Festa in the “Alhambra”
By Lord Beaconsfield (1804–1881)
 
From ‘The Young Duke’

YOU entered the Alhambra by a Saracenic cloister, from the ceiling of which an occasional lamp threw a gleam upon some Eastern arms hung up against the wall. This passage led to the armory, a room of moderate dimensions, but hung with rich contents. Many an inlaid breastplate—many a Mameluke scimitar and Damascus blade—many a gemmed pistol and pearl embroided saddle might there be seen, though viewed in a subdued and quiet light. All seemed hushed and still, and shrouded in what had the reputation of being a palace of pleasure.  1
  In this chamber assembled the expected guests. His Grace and the Bird of Paradise arrived first, with their foreign friends. Lord Squib and Lord Darrell, Sir Lucius Grafton, Mr. Annesley, and Mr. Peacock Piggott followed, but not alone. There were two ladies who, by courtesy if no other right, bore the titles of Lady Squib and Mrs. Annesley. There was also a pseudo Lady Aphrodite Grafton. There was Mrs. Montfort, the famous blonde, of a beauty which was quite ravishing, and dignified as beautiful. Some said (but really people say such things) that there was a talk (I never believe anything I hear) that had not the Bird of Paradise flown in (these foreigners pick up everything), Mrs. Montfort would have been the Duchess of St. James. How this may be I know not; certain, however, this superb and stately donna did not openly evince any spleen at her more fortunate rival. Although she found herself a guest at the Alhambra instead of being the mistress of the palace, probably, like many other ladies, she looked upon this affair of the singing-bird as a freak that must end—and then perhaps his Grace, who was a charming young man, would return to his senses. There also was her sister, a long, fair girl, who looked sentimental, but was only silly. There was a little French actress, like a highly finished miniature; and a Spanish danseuse, tall, dusky, and lithe, glancing like a lynx, and graceful as a jennet.  2
  Having all arrived, they proceeded down a small gallery to the banqueting-room. The doors were thrown open. Pardon me if for a moment I do not describe the chamber; but really, the blaze affects my sight. The room was large and lofty. It was fitted up as an Eastern tent. The walls were hung with scarlet cloth tied up with ropes of gold. Round the room crouched recumbent lions richly gilt, who grasped in their paw a lance, the top of which was a colored lamp. The ceiling was emblazoned with the Hauteville arms, and was radiant with burnished gold. A cresset lamp was suspended from the centre of the shield, and not only emitted an equable flow of soft though brilliant light, but also, as the aromatic oil wasted away, distilled an exquisite perfume.  3
  The table blazed with golden plate, for the Bird of Paradise loved splendor. At the end of the room, under a canopy and upon a throne, the shield and vases lately executed for his Grace now appeared. Everything was gorgeous, costly, and imposing; but there was no pretense, save in the original outline, at maintaining the Oriental character. The furniture was French; and opposite the throne Canova’s Hebe, by Bertolini, bounded with a golden cup from a pedestal of ormolu.  4
  The guests are seated; but after a few minutes the servants withdraw. Small tables of ebony and silver, and dumb-waiters of ivory and gold, conveniently stored, are at hand, and Spiridion never leaves the room. The repast was most refined, most exquisite, and most various. It was one of those meetings where all eat. When a few persons, easy and unconstrained, unincumbered with cares, and of dispositions addicted to enjoyment, get together at past midnight, it is extraordinary what an appetite they evince. Singers also are proverbially prone to gormandize; and though the Bird of Paradise unfortunately possessed the smallest mouth in all Singingland, it is astonishing how she pecked! But they talked as well as feasted, and were really gay. It was amusing to observe—that is to say, if you had been a dumb-waiter, and had time for observation—how characteristic was the affectation of the women. Lady Squib was witty, Mrs. Annesley refined, and the pseudo Lady Afy fashionable. As for Mrs. Montfort, she was, as her wont, somewhat silent but excessively sublime. The Spaniard said nothing, but no doubt indicated the possession of Cervantic humor by the sly calmness with which she exhausted her own waiter and pillaged her neighbors. The little Frenchwoman scarcely ate anything, but drank champagne and chatted, with equal rapidity and equal composure.  5
  “Prince,” said the duke, “I hope Madame de Harestein approves of your trip to England?”  6
  The prince only smiled, for he was of a silent disposition, and therefore wonderfully well suited his traveling companion.  7
  “Poor Madame de Harestein!” exclaimed Count Frill. “What despair she was in when you left Vienna, my dear duke. Ah! mon Dieu! I did what I could to amuse her. I used to take my guitar, and sing to her morning and night, but without the least effect. She certainly would have died of a broken heart, if it had not been for the dancing-dogs.”  8
  “The dancing-dogs!” minced the pseudo Lady Aphrodite. “How shocking!”  9
  “Did they bite her?” asked Lady Squib, “and so inoculate her with gayety?”  10
  “Oh! the dancing-dogs, my dear ladies! everybody was mad about the dancing-dogs. They came from Peru, and danced the mazurka in green jackets with a jabot! Oh! what a jabot!”  11
  “I dislike animals excessively,” remarked Mrs. Annesley.  12
  “Dislike the dancing-dogs!” said Count Frill. “Ah, my good lady, you would have been enchanted. Even the kaiser fed them with pistachio nuts. Oh, so pretty! delicate leetle things, soft shining little legs, and pretty little faces! so sensible, and with such jabots!”  13
  “I assure you, they were excessively amusing,” said the prince, in a soft, confidential undertone to his neighbor, Mrs. Montfort, who, admiring his silence, which she took for state, smiled and bowed with fascinating condescension.  14
  “And what else has happened very remarkable, count, since I left you?” asked Lord Darrell.  15
  “Nothing, nothing, my dear Darrell. This bêtise of a war has made us all serious. If old Clamstandt had not married that gipsy little Dugiria, I really think I should have taken a turn to Belgrade.”  16
  “You should not eat so much, poppet,” drawled Charles Annesley to the Spaniard.  17
  “Why not?” said the little French lady, with great animation, always ready to fight anybody’s battle, provided she could get an opportunity to talk. “Why not, Mr. Annesley? You never will let anybody eat—I never eat myself, because every night, having to talk so much, I am dry, dry, dry—so I drink, drink, drink. It is an extraordinary thing that there is no language which makes you so thirsty as French. I always have heard that all the southern languages, Spanish and Italian, make you hungry.”  18
  “What can be the reason?” seriously asked the pseudo Lady Afy.  19
  “Because there is so much salt in it,” said Lord Squib.  20
  “Delia,” drawled Mr. Annesley, “you look very pretty to-night!”  21
  “I am charmed to charm you, Mr. Annesley. Shall I tell you what Lord Bon Mot said of you?”  22
  “No, ma mignonne! I never wish to hear my own good things.”  23
  “Spoiled, you should add,” said Lady Squib, “if Bon Mot be in the case.”  24
  “Lord Bon Mot is a most gentlemanly man,” said Delia, indignant at an admirer being attacked. “He always wants to be amusing. Whenever he dines out, he comes and sits with me half an hour to catch the air of Parisian badinage.”  25
  “And you tell him a variety of little things?” asked Lord Squib, insidiously drawing out the secret tactics of Bon Mot.  26
  “Beaucoup, beaucoup,” said Delia, extending two little white hands sparkling with gems. “If he come in ever so—how do you call it? heavy—not that—in the domps—ah! it is that—if ever he come in the domps, he goes out always like a soufflée.”  27
  “As empty, I have no doubt,” said Lady Squib.  28
  “And as sweet, I have no doubt,” said Lord Squib; “for Delcroix complains sadly of your excesses, Delia.”  29
  “Mr. Delcroix complain of me! That, indeed, is too bad. Just because I recommended Montmorency de Versailles to him for an excellent customer, ever since he abuses me, merely because Montmorency has forgot, in the hurry of going off, to pay his little account.”  30
  “But he says you have got all the things,” said Lord Squib, whose great amusement was to put Delia in a passion.  31
  “What of that?” screamed the little lady. “Montmorency gave them to me.”  32
  “Don’t make such a noise,” said the Bird of Paradise. “I never can eat when there is a noise. St. James,” continued she, in a fretful tone, “they make such a noise!”  33
  “Annesley, keep Squib quiet.”  34
  “Delia, leave that young man alone. If Isidora would talk a little more, and you eat a little more, I think you would be the most agreeable little ladies I know. Poppet! put those bonbons in your pocket. You should never eat sugar-plums in company.”  35
  Thus talking agreeable nonsense, tasting agreeable dishes, and sipping agreeable wines, an hour ran on. Sweetest music from an unseen source ever and anon sounded, and Spiridion swung a censer full of perfumes around the chamber. At length the duke requested Count Frill to give them a song. The Bird of Paradise would never sing for pleasure, only for fame and a slight check. The count begged to decline, and at the same time asked for a guitar. The signora sent for hers; and his Excellency, preluding with a beautiful simper, gave them some slight thing to this effect:—

      Charming Bignetta! charming Bignetta!
    What a gay little girl is charming Bignetta!
            She dances, she prattles,
            She rides and she rattles;
But she always is charming—that charming Bignetta!
  
    Charming Bignetta! charming Bignetta!
    What a wild little witch is charming Bignetta!
            When she smiles I’m all madness;
            When she frowns I’m all sadness;
But she always is smiling—that charming Bignetta!
  
    Charming Bignetta! charming Bignetta!
    What a wicked young rogue is charming Bignetta!
            She laughs at my shyness,
            And flirts with his highness;
Yet still she is charming—that charming Bignetta!
  
    Charming Bignetta! charming Bignetta!
    What a dear little girl is charming Bignetta!
            “Think me only a sister,”
            Said she trembling; I kissed her.
What a charming young sister is—charming Bignetta!
  36
 
  He ceased; and although
            “—the Ferrarese
To choicer music chimed his gay guitar
          In Este’s halls,”
as Casti himself, or rather Mr. Rose, choicely sings, yet still his song served its purpose, for it raised a smile.
  37
  “I wrote that for Madame Sapiepha, at the Congress of Verona,” said Count Frill. “It has been thought amusing.”  38
  “Madame Sapiepha!” exclaimed the Bird of Paradise. “What! that pretty little woman who has such pretty caps?”  39
  “The same! Ah! what caps! Mon Dieu! what taste! what taste!”  40
  “You like caps, then?” asked the Bird of Paradise, with a sparkling eye.  41
  “Oh! if there be anything more than other that I know most, it is the cap. Here, voici!” said he, rather oddly unbuttoning his waistcoat, “you see what lace I have got. Voici! voici!”  42
  “Ah! me! what lace! what lace!” exclaimed the Bird in rapture. “St. James, look at his lace. Come here, come here, sit next me. Let me look at that lace.” She examined it with great attention, then turned up her beautiful eyes with a fascinating smile. “Ah! c’est jolie, n’est-ce pas? But you like caps. I tell you what, you shall see my caps. Spiridion, go, mon cher, and tell ma’amselle to bring my caps—all my caps, one of each set.”  43
  In due time entered the Swiss, with the caps—all the caps—one of each set. As she handed them in turn to her mistress, the Bird chirped a panegyric upon each.  44
  “That is pretty, is it not—and this also? but this is my favorite. What do you think of this border? c’est belle, cette garniture? et ce jabot, c’est tres séduisant, n’est-ce pas? Mais voici, the cap of Princess Lichtenstein. C’est superb, c’est mon favori. But I also love very much this of the Duchesse de Berri. She gave me the pattern herself. And after all, this cornette à petite santé of Lady Blaze is a dear little thing; then, again, this coiffe à dentelle of Lady Macaroni is quite a pet.”  45
  “Pass them down,” said Lord Squib, “we want to look at them.” Accordingly they were passed down. Lord Squib put one on.  46
  “Do I look superb, sentimental, or only pretty?” asked his lordship. The example was contagious, and most of the caps were appropriated. No one laughed more than their mistress, who, not having the slightest idea of the value of money, would have given them all away on the spot; not from any good-natured feeling, but from the remembrance that to-morrow she might amuse half an hour buying others.  47
  While some were stealing, and she remonstrating, the duke clapped his hands like a caliph. The curtain at the end of the apartment was immediately withdrawn and the ball-room stood revealed.  48
  It was of the same size as the banqueting-hall. Its walls exhibited a long perspective of gilt pilasters, the frequent piers of which were entirely of plate looking-glass, save where occasionally a picture had been, as it were, inlaid in its rich frame. Here was the Titian Venus of the Tribune, deliciously copied by a French artist; there, the Roman Fornarina, with her delicate grace, beamed like the personification of Raphael’s genius. Here Zuleikha, living in the light and shade of that magician Guercino, in vain summoned the passions of the blooming Hebrew; and there Cleopatra, preparing for her last immortal hour, proved by what we saw that Guido had been a lover.  49
  The ceiling of this apartment was richly painted and richly gilt; from it were suspended three lustres by golden cords, which threw a softened light upon the floor of polished and curiously inlaid woods. At the end of the apartment was an orchestra, and here the pages, under the direction of Carlstein, offered a very efficient domestic band.  50
  Round the room waltzed the elegant revelers. Softly and slowly, led by their host, they glided along like spirits of air; but each time that the duke passed the musicians, the music became livelier, and the motion more brisk, till at length you might have mistaken them for a college of spinning dervishes. One by one, an exhausted couple slunk away. Some threw themselves on a sofa, some monopolized an easy-chair; but in twenty minutes all the dancers had disappeared. At length Peacock Piggott gave a groan, which denoted returning energy, and raised a stretching leg in air, bringing up, though most unwittingly, on his foot one of the Bird’s sublime and beautiful caps.  51
  “Halloo! Piggott, armed cap au pied, I see,” said Lord Squib. This joke was a signal for general resuscitation….  52
  Here they lounged in different parties, talking on such subjects as idlers ever fall upon; now and then plucking a flower—now and then listening to the fountain—now and then lingering over the distant music—and now and then strolling through a small apartment which opened to their walks, and which bore the title of the Temple of Gnidus. Here Canova’s Venus breathed an atmosphere of perfume and of light—that wonderful statue whose full-charged eye is not very classical, to be sure—but then, how true!  53
  Lord Squib proposed a visit to the theatre, which he had ordered to be lit up. To the theatre they repaired. They rambled over every part of the house, amused themselves, to the horror of Mr. Annesley, with a visit to the gallery, and then collected behind the scenes. They were excessively amused with the properties; and Lord Squib proposed they should dress themselves. Enough champagne had been quaffed to render any proposition palatable, and in a few minutes they were all in costume. A crowd of queens and chambermaids, Jews and chimney-sweeps, lawyers and charleys, Spanish dons and Irish officers, rushed upon the stage. The little Spaniard was Almaviva, and fell into magnificent attitudes, with her sword and plume. Lord Squib was the old woman of Brentford, and very funny. Sir Lucius Grafton, Harlequin; and Darrell, Grimaldi. The prince and the count, without knowing it, figured as watchmen. Squib whispered Annesley that Sir Lucius O’Trigger might appear in character, but was prudent enough to suppress the joke.  54
  The band was summoned, and they danced quadrilles with infinite spirit, and finished the night, at the suggestion of Lord Squib, by breakfasting on the stage. By the time this meal was dispatched, the purple light of morn had broken into the building, and the ladies proposed an immediate departure. Mrs. Montfort and her sister were sent home in one of the duke’s carriages; and the foreign guests were requested by him to be their escort. The respective parties drove off. Two cabriolets lingered to the last, and finally carried away the French actress and the Spanish dancer, Lord Darrell, and Peacock Piggott; but whether the two gentlemen went in one and two ladies in the other I cannot aver. I hope not.  55
  There was at length a dead silence, and the young duke was left to solitude and the signora!  56
 
 
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