Read CHAPTER XXXVIII - THE RUA NUOVA of Charles O' Malley‚ The Irish Dragoon Volume 1, free online book, by Charles Lever, on ReadCentral.com.

Our dinner was a long and uninteresting one, and as I found that the major was likely to prefer his seat as chairman of the party to the seductions of ladies’ society, I took the first opportunity of escaping and left the room.

It was a rich moonlight night as I found myself in the street. My way, which led along the banks of the Tagus, was almost as light as in daytime, and crowded with walking parties, who sauntered carelessly along in the enjoyment of the cool, refreshing night-air. On inquiring, I discovered that the Rua Nuova was at the extremity of the city; but as the road led along by the river I did not regret the distance, but walked on with increasing pleasure at the charms of so heavenly a climate and country.

After three quarters of an hour’s walk, the streets became by degrees less and less crowded. A solitary party passed me now and then; the buzz of distant voices succeeded to the gay laughter and merry tones of the passing groups, and at length my own footsteps alone awoke the echoes along the deserted pathway. I stopped every now and then to gaze upon the tranquil river, whose eddies were circling in the pale silver of the moonlight. I listened with attentive ear as the night breeze wafted to me the far-off sounds of a guitar, and the deep tones of some lover’s serenade; while again the tender warbling of the nightingale came borne across the stream on a wind rich with the odor of the orange-tree.

As thus I lingered on my way the time stole on, and it was near midnight ere I had roused myself from the revery surrounding objects had thrown about me. I stopped suddenly, and for some minutes I struggled with myself to discover if I was really awake. As I walked along, lost in my reflections, I had entered a little garden beside the river. Fragrant plants and lovely flowers bloomed on every side; the orange, the camelia, the cactus, and the rich laurel of Portugal were blending their green and golden hues around me, while the very air was filled with delicious music. “Was it a dream? Could such ecstasy be real?” I asked myself, as the rich notes swelled upwards in their strength, and sank in soft cadence to tones of melting harmony; now bursting forth in the full force of gladness, the voices blended together in one stream of mellow music, and suddenly ceasing, the soft but thrilling shake of a female voice rose upon the air, and in its plaintive beauty stirred the very heart. The proud tramp of martial music succeeded to the low wailing cry of agony; then came the crash of battle, the clang of steel; the thunder of the fight rolled on in all its majesty, increasing in its maddening excitement till it ended in one loud shout of victory.

All was still; not a breath moved, not a leaf stirred, and again was I relapsing into my dreamy scepticism, when again the notes swelled upwards in concert. But now their accents were changed, and in low, subdued tones, faintly and slowly uttered, the prayer of thanksgiving rose to Heaven and spoke their gratefulness. I almost fell upon my knees, and already the tears filled my eyes as I drank in the sounds. My heart was full to bursting, and even now as I write it my pulse throbs as I remember the hymn of the Abencerrages.

When I rallied from my trance of excited pleasure, my first thought was, where was I, and how came I there? Before I could resolve my doubts upon the question, my attention was turned in another direction, for close beside me the branches moved forward, and a pair of arms were thrown around my neck, while a delicious voice cried out in an accent of childish, delight, “Trovado!” At the same instant a lovely head sank upon my shoulder, covering it with tresses of long brown hair. The arms pressed me still more closely, till I felt her very heart beating against my side.

“Mio fradre,” said a soft, trembling voice, as her fingers played in my hair and patted my temples.

What a situation mine! I well knew that some mistaken identity had been the cause, but still I could not repress my inclination to return the embrace, as I pressed my lips upon the fair forehead that leaned upon my bosom; at the same moment she threw back her head, as if to look me more fully in the face. One glance sufficed; blushing deeply over her cheeks and neck, she sprang from my arms, and uttering a faint cry, staggered against a tree. In an instant I saw it was the lovely girl I had met in the morning; and without losing a second I poured out apologies for my intrusion with all the eloquence I was master of, till she suddenly interrupted me by asking if I spoke French. Scarcely had I recommenced my excuses in that language, when a third party appeared upon the stage. This was a short, elderly man, in a green uniform, with several decorations upon his breast, and a cocked hat with a most flowing plume in his right hand.

“May I beg to know whom I have the honor of receiving?” inquired he, in very excellent English, as he advanced with a look of very ceremonious and distant politeness.

I immediately explained that, presuming upon the card which his servant had presented me, I had resolved on paying my respects when a mistake had led me accidentally into his garden.

My apologies had not come to an end when he folded me in his arms and overwhelmed me with thanks, at the same time saying a few words in Portuguese to his daughter. She stooped down, and taking my hand gently within her own, touched it with her lips.

This piece of touching courtesy, which I afterwards found meant little or nothing, affected me deeply at the time, and I felt the blood rush to my face and forehead, half in pride, half in a sense of shame. My confusion was, however, of short duration; for taking my arm, the old gentleman led me along a few paces, and turning round a small clump of olives, entered a little summer-house. Here a considerable party were assembled, which for their picturesque effect could scarcely have been better managed on the stage.

Beneath the mild lustre of a large lamp of stained glass, half hid in the overhanging boughs, was spread a table covered with vessels of gold and silver plate of gorgeous richness; drinking cups and goblets of antique pattern shone among cups of Sèvres china or Venetian glass; delicious fruit, looking a thousand times more tempting for being contained in baskets of silver foliage, peeped from amidst a profusion of fresh flowers, whose odor was continually shed around by a slight jet d’eau that played among the leaves. Around upon the grass, seated upon cushions or reclining on Genoa carpets, were several beautiful girls in most becoming costumes, their dark locks and darker eyes speaking of “the soft South,” while their expressive gestures and animated looks betokened a race whose temperament is glowing as their clime. There were several men also, the greater number of whom appeared in uniform, bronzed, soldier-like fellows, who had the jaunty air and easy carriage of their calling, among whom was one Englishman, or at least so I guessed from his wearing the uniform of a heavy dragoon regiment.

“This is my daughter’s fête,” said Don Emanuel, as he ushered me into the assembly, “her birthday; a sad day it might have been for us had it not been for your courage and forethought.” So saying, he commenced a recital of my adventure to the bystanders, who overwhelmed me with civil speeches and a shower of soft looks that completed the fascination of the fairy scene. Meanwhile the fair Inez had made room for me beside her, and I found myself at once the lion of the party, each vying with her neighbor who should show me most attention, La Senhora herself directing her conversation exclusively to me, a circumstance which, considering the awkwardness of our first meeting, I felt no small surprise at, and which led me, somewhat maliciously I confess, to make a half allusion to it, feeling some interest in ascertaining for whom the flattering reception was really intended.

“I thought you were Charles,” said she, blushing, in answer to my question.

“And you are right,” said I; “I am Charles.”

“Nay, but I meant my Charles.”

There was something of touching softness in the tone of these few words that made me half wish I were her Charles. Whether my look evinced as much or not, I cannot tell, but she speedily added,

“He is my brother; he is a captain in the cacadores, and I expected him here this evening. Some one saw a figure pass the gate and conceal himself in the trees, and I was sure it was he.”

“What a disappointment!” said I.

“Yes; was it not?” said she, hurriedly; and then, as if remembering how ungracious was the speech, she blushed more deeply and hung down her head.

Just at this moment, as I looked up, I caught the eye of the English officer fixed steadfastly upon me. He was a tall, fine-looking fellow, of about two or three and thirty, with marked and handsome features, which, however, conveyed an expression of something sneering and sinister that struck me the moment I saw him. His glass was fixed in his eye, and I perceived that he regarded us both with a look of no common interest. My attention did not, however, dwell long upon the circumstance, for Don Emanuel, coming behind my shoulder, asked me if I would not take out his daughter in the bolero they were just forming.

To my shame I was obliged to confess that I had not even seen the dance; and while I continued to express my resolve to correct the errors of my education, the Englishman came up and asked the senhora to be his partner. This put the very keystone upon my annoyance, and I half turned angrily away from the spot, when I heard her decline his invitation, and avow her determination not to dance.

There was something which pleased me so much at this refusal, that I could not help turning upon her a look of most grateful acknowledgment; but as I did so, I once more encountered the gaze of the Englishman, whose knitted brows and compressed lips were bent upon me in a manner there was no mistaking. This was neither the fitting time nor place to seek any explanation of the circumstance, so, wisely resolving to wait a better occasion, I turned away and resumed my attentions towards my fair companion.

“Then you don’t care for the bolero?” said I, as she reseated herself upon the grass.

“Oh, I delight in it!” said she, enthusiastically.

“But you refused to dance?”

She hesitated, blushed, tried to mutter something, and was silent.

“I had determined to learn it,” said I, half jestingly; “but if you will not dance with me ”

“Yes; that I will, indeed I will.”

“But you declined my countryman. Is it because he is inexpert?”

The senhora hesitated, looked confused for some minutes; at length, coloring slightly, she said: “I have already made one rude speech to you this evening; I fear lest I should make a second. Tell me, is Captain Trevyllian your friend?”

“If you mean that gentleman yonder, I never saw him before.”

“Nor heard of him?”

“Nor that either. We are total strangers to each other.”

“Well, then, I may confess it. I do not like him. My father prefers him to any one else, invites him here daily, and, in fact, instals him as his first favorite. But still, I cannot like him; and yet I have done my best to do so.”

“Indeed!” said I, pointedly. “What are his chief demerits? Is he not agreeable? Is he not clever?”

“Oh, on the contrary, most agreeable, fascinating, I should say, in conversation; has travelled, seen a great deal of the world, is very accomplished, and has distinguished himself on several occasions. He wears, as you see, a Portuguese order.”

“And with all that ”

“And with all that, I cannot bear him. He is a duellist, a notorious duellist. My brother, too, knows more of him, and avoids him. But let us not speak further. I see his eyes are again fixed on us; and somehow, I fear him, without well knowing wherefore.”

A movement among the party, shawls and mantillas were sought for on all sides; and the preparations for leave-taking appeared general. Before, however, I had time to express my thanks for my hospitable reception, the guests had assembled in a circle around the senhora, and toasting her with a parting bumper, they commenced in concert a little Portuguese song of farewell, each verse concluding with a good-night, which, as they separated and held their way homewards, might now and then be heard rising upon the breeze and wafting their last thoughts back to her. The concluding verse, which struck me much, I have essayed to translate. It ran somehow thus:

“The morning breezes chill Now close our joyous scene, And yet we linger still, Where we’ve so happy been. How blest were it to live With hearts like ours so light, And only part to give One long and last good-night! Good-night!”

With many an invitation to renew my visit, most kindly preferred by Don Emanuel and warmly seconded by his daughter, I, too, wished my good-night and turned my steps homeward.