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American Wit and Humor
“If anything could make a man forgive himself for being sixty years old,” said the Consul, holding up his wine-glass between his eye and the setting sun — for it was summer-time — “it would be that he can remember Malibran in her divine sixteenity at the Park Theater, thirty-odd years ago. Egad, sir, one couldn’t help making great allowances for Don Giovanni, after seeing her in Zerlina. She was beyond imagination piquante and delicious.”
The Consul, as my readers may have partly inferred, was not a Roman consul, nor yet a French one. He had had the honor of representing this great republic at one of the Hanse towns, I forget which, in President Monroe’s time. I don’t recollect how long he held the office; but it was long enough to make the title stick to him for the rest of his life with the tenacity of a militia colonelcy or village diaconate. The country people round about used to call him “the Counsel,” which, I believe — for I am not very fresh from my school-books — was etymologically correct enough, however orthoepically erroneous. He had not limited his European life, however, within the precinct of his Hanseatic consulship, but had dispersed himself very promiscuously over the Continent, and had seen many cities, and the manners of many men and of some women — singing-women, I mean — in their public character; for the Consul, correct of life as of ear, never sought to undeify his divinities 202 by pursuing them from the heaven of the stage to the purgatorial intermediacy of the coulisses, still less to the lower depth of disenchantment into which too many of them sunk in their private life.
“Yes sir,” he went on, “I have seen and heard them all — Catalani, Pasta, Pezzaroni, Grisi, and all the rest of them, even Sonntag, though not in her very best estate; but i give you my word there is none that has taken lodgings here,” tapping his forehead, “so permanently as the Signorina Garcia, or that I can see and hear so distinctly when I am in the mood of it by myself. Rosina, Desdemona, Cinderella, and, as I have said just now, Zerlina — she is as fresh in them all to my mind’s eye and ear as if the Park Theater had not given way to a cursed shoe-shop, and I had been hearing her there only last night. Let’s drink her memory,” the Consul added, half in mirth and half in melancholy — a mood to which he was not unused, and which did not ill become him.
Now, no intelligent person who knew the excellence of the Consul’s wine could refuse to pay this posthumous honor to the harmonious shade of the lost Muse. The Consul was an old-fashioned man in his tastes, to be sure, and held to the old religion of Madeira, which divided the faith of our fathers with the Cambridge Platform, and had never given in to the later heresies which have crept into the communion of good-fellowship from the south of France and the Rhine.
“A glass of champagne,” he would say, “is all well enough at the end of dinner, just to take the grease out of one’s throat, and get the palate ready for the more serious vintages ordained for the solemn and deliberate drinking by which man justifies his creation; but Madeira, sir, Madeira is the only standby that never fails a man, and can always be depended upon as something sure and steadfast.”203
I confess to having fallen away myself from the gracious doctrine and works to which he had held so fast; but I am no bigot — which, for a heretic, is something remarkable — and had no scruple about uniting with him in the service he proposed, without demur or protestation as to form or substance. Indeed, he disarmed fanaticism by the curious care he bestowed on making his works conformable to the faith that was in him; for partly by inheritance, and partly by industrious pains, his old house was undermined by a cellar of wines such as is seldom seen in these days of modern degeneracy. He is the last gentleman that I know of, of that old school that used to import their own wine and lay it down annually themselves, their bins forming a kind of vinous calendar suggestive of great events. Their degenerate sons are content to be furnished, as they want it, from the dubious stores of the vintner, by retail.
“I suppose it was her youth and beauty, sir,” I suggested, “that made her so rememberable to you. You know she was barely turned seventeen when she sang in this country.”
“Partly that, no doubt,” replied the Consul, “but not altogether, nor chiefly. No, sir, it was her genius which made her beauty so glorious. She was wonderfully handsome, though ‘She was a fantom of delight,’ as that Lake fellow says” — it was thus profanely that the Consul designated the poet Wordsworth, whom he could not abide — “and the best thing he ever said, by Jove!”
“And did you never see her again?” I inquired.
“Once only,” he answered, “eight or nine years afterward, a year or two before she died. It was at Venice, and in Norma. She was different, and yet not changed for the worse. There was an indescribable look of sadness out of her eyes, that touched one oddly, and fixed itself in the memory. But she was something apart and by herself, and stamped herself on 204 one’s mind as Rachel did in Camille of Phèdre. It was true genius, and no imitation, that made both of them what they were. But she actually had the physical beauty which Rachel only compelled you to think she had, by the force of her genius and consummate dramatic skill, while she was on the scene before you.
“But do you rank Malibran with Rachel as a dramatic artist?” I asked.
“I cannot tell,” he answered. “But if she had not the studied perfection of Rachel — which was always the same, and could not be altered without harm — she had at least a capacity of impulsive self-adaptation about her which made her for the time the character she personated — not always the same, but such as the woman she represented might have been in the shifting phases of the passion that possessed her. And to think that she died at eight and twenty! What might not ten years more have made her!”
“It is odd,” I observed, “that her fame should be forever connected with the name she got by her first unlucky marriage in New York; for it was unlucky enough, I believe — was it not?”
“You may say that,” responded the Consul, “without fear of denial or qualification. It was disgraceful in its beginning and in its ending. It was a swindle on a large scale; and poor Maria Garcia was the one who suffered the most by the operation.”
“I have always heard,” said I, “that old Garcia was cheated out of the price for which he sold his daughter, and that M. Malibran got his wife on false pretenses.”
“Not altogether so,” returned the Consul. “I happen to know all about that matter from the best authority. She was obtained on false pretenses, to be sure; but it was not Garcia 205 that suffered by them. M. Malibran, moreover, never paid the price agreed upon, and yet Garcia got it, for all that.”
“Indeed,!” I exclaimed. “It must have been a neat operation. I cannot exactly see how the thing was done; but I have no doubt a tale hangs thereby, and a good one. Is it tellable?”
“I see no reason why not,” said the Consul. “The sufferer made no secret of it, and I know of no reason why I should. Mynheer Van Holland told me the story himself, in Amsterdam, in the year ’35.”
“And who was he?” I inquired, “and what had he to do with it?”
“I’ll tell you,” responded the Consul, filling his glass, and passing the bottle, “if you will have the goodness to shut the window behind you, and ring for candles; for it gets chilly here among the mountains as soon as the sun is down.”
I beg your pardon — did you make a remark? Oh, what mountains! You must really pardon me; I cannot give you such a clue as that to the identity of my dear Consul, just now, for excellent and sufficient reasons. But, if you have paid your money for the sight of this Number, you may take your choice of all the mountain-ranges on the continent, from the Rocky to the White, and settle him just where you like. Only you must leave a gap to the westward, through which the river — also anonymous for the present distress — breaks its way, and which gives him half an hour’s more sunshine than he would otherwise be entitled to, and slope the fields down to its margin near a mile off, with their native timber thinned so skilfully as to have the effect of the best landscape-gardening. It is a grand and lovely scene; and when I look at it, I do not wonder at one of the Consul’s apothegms — namely, that the chief advantage of foreign travel is, that it teaches you that one place is just as good to live in as another. I imagine that the one place 206 he had in his mind at the time was just this one. But that is neither here nor there. When candles came, we drew our chairs together, and he told me in substance the following story. I will tell it in my own words — not that they are so good as his, but because they come more readily to the nib of my pen.
New YORK has grown considerably since she was New Amsterdam, and has almost forgotten her whilom dependence on her first godmother. Indeed, had it not been for the historic industry of the erudite Diedrich Knickerbocker, very few of her sons would know much about the obligations of their nursing mother to their old grandam beyond sea, in the days of the Dutch dynasty. Still, though the old monopoly has been dead these two hundred years, or thereabout, there is I know not how many fold more traffic with her than in the days when it was in full life and force. Doth not that benefactor of his species, Mr. Udolpho Wolfe, derive thence his immortal or immortalizing Schiedam Schnapps, the virtues whereof, according to his advertisements, are fast transferring dram-drinking from the domain of pleasure to that of positive duty? Tobacco-pipes, too, and toys such as the friendly saint, whom Protestant children have been taught by Dutch tradition to invoke, delights to drop into the votive stocking — they come from the mother-city, where she sits upon the waters, quite as much a Sea-Cybele as Venice herself. And linens, too, fair and fresh and pure as the maidens that weave them, come forth from Dutch looms ready to grace our tables, or to deck our beds. And the mention of these brings me back to my story, though the immediate connection between Holland linen and Malibran’s 207 marriage may not at first view be palpable to sight. Still it is a fact that the web of this part of her variegated destiny was spun and woven out of threads of flax that took the substantial shape of fine Hollands; and this is the way in which it came to pass.
Mynheer Van Holland, of whom the Consul spoke just now, you must understand to have been one of the chief merchants of Amsterdam, a city whose merchants are princes, and have been kings. His transactions extended to all parts of the Old World, and did not skip over the New. His ships visited the harbor of New York as well as of London; and, as he died two or three years ago a very rich man, his adventures in general must have been more remunerative than the one I am going to relate. In the autumn of the year 1825 it seemed good to this worthy merchant to despatch a vessel, with a cargo chiefly made up of linens, to the market of New York. The honest man little dreamed with what a fate his ship was fraught, wrapped up in those flaxen folds. He happened to be in London the winter before, and was present at the dêbut of Maria Garcia at the King’s Theater. He must have admired the beauty, grace, and promise of the youthful Rosina, had he been ten times a Dutchman; and if he heard of her intended emigration to America, as he possibly might have done, it most likely excited no particular emotion in his phlegmatic bosom. He could not have imagined that the exportation of a little singing-girl to New York should interfere with a potential venture of his own in fair linen. The gods kindly hid the future from his eyes, so that he might enjoy the comic vexation her lively sallies caused to Doctor Bartolo in the play, unknowing that she would be the innocent cause of a more serious provocation to himself in downright earnest. He thought of this himself after it had all happened.208
Well, the good ship Steenbok had prosperous gales and fair weather across the ocean, and dropped anchor off the Battery with some days to spare from the amount due to the voyage. The consignee came off and took possession of the cargo, and duly transferred it to his own warehouse. Though the advantages of advertising were not as fully understood in those days of comparative ignorance as they have been since, he duly announced the goods which he had received, and waited for a customer. He did not have to wait long. It was but a day or two after the appearance of the advertisement in the newspapers that he had prime Holland linens on hand, just received from Amsterdam, when he was waited upon by a gentleman of good address, and evidently of French extraction, who inquired of the consignee, whom we will call Mr. Schulemberg for the nonce, “whether he had the linens he had advertised yet on hand.”
“They are still on hand and on sale,” said Mr. Schulemberg.
“What is the price of the entire consignment?” inquired the customer.
“Fifty thousand dollars,” responded Mr. Schulemberg.
“And the terms?”
“Cash on delivery.”
“Very good,” replied the obliging buyer. “If they be of the quality you describe in your advertisement, I will take them on those terms. Send them down to my warehouse, No. 118 Pearl Street, to-morrow morning, and I will send you the money.”
“And your name?” inquired Mr. Schulemberg.
“Is Malibran,” responded the courteous customer.
The two merchants bowed politely, the one to the other, mutually well pleased with the morning’s work, and bade each other good day.209
Mr. Schulemberg knew but little, if anything, about his new customer; but, as the transaction was to be a cash one, he did not mind that. He calculated his commissions, gave orders to his head clerk to see the goods duly delivered the next morning, and went on ’Change, and thence to dinner, in the enjoyment of a complacent mind and a good appetite. It is to be supposed that M. Malibran did the same. At any rate, he had the most reason, at least, according to his probable notions of mercantile morality and success.
The next day came, and with it came, betimes, the packages of linens to M. Malibran’s warehouse in Pearl Street; but the price for the same did not come as punctually to Mr. Schulemberg’s counting-room, according to the contract under which they were delivered. In point of fact, M. Malibran was not in at the time; but there was no doubt that he would attend to the matter without delay, as soon as he came in. A cash transaction does not necessarily imply so much the instant presence of coin as the unequivocal absence of credit. A day or two more or less is of no material consequence, only there is to be no delay for sales and returns before payment. So Mr. Schulemberg gave himself no uneasiness about the matter when two, three, and even five and six days had slid away without producing the apparition of the current money of the merchant. A man who transacted affairs on so large a scale as M. Malibran, and conducted them on the sound basis of ready money, might safely be trusted for so short a time. But when a week had elapsed, and no tidings had been received either of purchaser or purchase-money, Mr. Schulemberg thought it time for himself to interfere in his own proper person. 210 Accordingly, he incontinently proceeded to the counting-house of M. Malibran to receive the promised price, or to know the reason why. If he failed to obtain the one satisfaction, he at least could not complain of being disappointed of the other. Matters seemed to be in some little unbusiness-like confusion, and the clerks in a high state of gleeful excitement. Addressing himself to the chief among them, Mr. Schulemberg asked the pertinent question:
“Is M. Malibran in?”
“No, sir,” was the answer, “he is not; and he will not be, just at present.”
“But when will he be in? For I must see him on some pressing business of importance.”
“Not to-day, sir,” replied the clerk, smiling expressively. “He cannot be interrupted to-day on any business of any kind whatever.”
“The deuce he can’t!” returned Mr. Schulemberg. “I’ll see about that very soon, I can tell you. He promised to pay me cash for fifty thousand dollars’ worth of Holland linens a week ago. I have not seen the color of his money yet, and I mean to wait no longer. Where does he live? For, if he be alive, I will see him, and hear what he has to say for himself, and that speedily.”
“Indeed, sir,” pleasantly expostulated the clerk, “I think when you understand the circumstances of the case, you will forbear disturbing M. Malibran this day of all others in his life.”
“Why, what the devil ails this day above all others,” said Mr. Schulemberg somewhat testily, “that he can’t see his creditors, and pay his debts on it?”
“Why, sir, the fact is,” the clerk replied, with an air of interest and importance, “it is M. Malibran’s wedding-day. 211 He marries this morning the Signorina Garcia, and I am sure you would not molest him with business on such an occasion as that.”
“But my fifty thousand dollars!” persisted the consignee. “And why have they not been paid?”
“Oh, give yourself no uneasiness at all about that, sir,” replied the clerk, with the air of one to whom the handling of such trifles was a daily occurrence. “M. Malibran will, of course, attend to that matter the moment he is a little at leisure. In fact, I imagine, that, in the hurry and bustle inseparable from an event of this nature, the circumstance has entirely escaped his mind; but, as soon as he returns to business again, I will recall it to his recollection, and you will hear from him without delay.”
The clerk was right in his augury as to the effect his intelligence would have upon the creditor. It was not a clerical error on his part when he supposed that Mr. Schulemberg would not choose to enact the part of skeleton at the wedding-breakfast of the young Prima Donna There is something about the great events of life, which cannot happen a great many times to anybody —
“A wedding or a funeral,
A mourning or a festival,”
that touches the strings of the one human heart of us all, and makes it return no uncertain sound. Shylock himself would hardly have demanded his pound of flesh on the wedding-day, had it been Antonio that was to espouse the fair Portia. Even he would have allowed three days of grace before demanding the specific performance of his bond. Now, Mr. Schulemberg was very far from being a Shylock, and he was also a constant 212 attendant upon the opera, and a devoted admirer of the lovely Garcia. So he could not wonder that a man on the eve of marriage with that divine creature should forget every other consideration in the immediate contemplation of his happiness, even if it were the consideration for a cargo of prime linens, and one to the tune of fifty thousand dollars. And it is altogether likely that the mundane reflection occurred to him, and made him easier in his mind under the delay, that old Garcia was by no means the kind of man to give away a daughter who dropped gold and silver from her sweet lips whenever she opened them in public, as the princess in the fairy-tale did pearls and diamonds, to any man who could not give him a solid equivalent in return. So that, in fact, he regarded the notes of the Signorina Garcia as so much collateral security for his debt.
So Mr. Schulemberg was content to bide his reasonable time for the discharge of M. Malibran’s indebtedness to his principal. He had advised Mynheer Van Holland of the speedy sale of his consignment, and given him hopes of a quick return of the proceeds. But, as the days wore away, it seemed to him that the time he was called on to bide was growing into an unreasonable one. I cannot state with precision exactly how long he waited. Whether he disturbed the sweet influences of the honeymoon by his intrusive presence, or permitted that nectareous satellite to fill her horns, and wax and wane in peace, before he sought to bring the bridegroom down to the things of earth, are questions which I must leave to the discretion of my readers to settle, each for himself or herself, according to their own notions of the proprieties of the case. But at the proper time, after patience had thrown up in disgust the office of a virtue, he took his hat and cane one fine morning, and walked down to No. 118 Pearl Street, for the double purpose 213 of wishing M. Malibran joy of his marriage, and of receiving the price — promised long, and long withheld — of the linens which form the tissue of my story.
“The gods gave ear, and granted half his prayer:
The rest the winds dispersed in empty air.”
There was not the slightest difficulty about his imparting his epithalamic congratulation; but as to his receiving the numismatic consideration for which he hoped in return, that was an entirely different affair. He found matters in the Pearl Street counting-house again apparently something out of joint, but with a less smiling and sunny atmosphere pervading them than he had remarked on his last visit. He was received by M. Malibran with courtesy, a little overstrained, perhaps, and not as flowing and gracious as at their first interview. Preliminaries over, Mr. Schulemberg, plunging with epic energy into the midst of things, said, “I have called, M. Malibran, to receive the fifty thousand dollars which, you will remember, you engaged to pay down for the lines I sold you on such a day. I can make allowance for the interruption which has prevented your attending to this business sooner; but it is now high time that it was settled.”
“I consent to it all, monsieur,” replied M. Malibran with a deprecatory gesture. “You have reason, and I am desolated that it is the impossible that you ask of me to do!”
“How, sir!” demanded the creditor. “What do you mean by the impossible? You do not mean to deny that you agreed to pay cash for the goods?”
“My faith, no, monsieur,” shruggingly responded M. Malibran. “I avow it; you have reason; I promised to pay the money, as you say it; but, if I have not the money to pay you, how can I pay you the money? What to do?”214
“I don’t understand you, sir,” returned Mr. Schulemberg. “You have not the money? And you do not mean to pay me, according to agreement?”
“But, monsieur, how can I, when I have not money? Have you not heard that I have made — what you call it? — failure, yesterday? I am grieved of it thrice sensibly; but if it went of my life, I could not pay you for your fine linens, which were of a good market at the price.”
“Indeed, sir,” replied Mr. Schulemberg, “I had not heard of your misfortunes; and I am heartily sorry for them, on my own account and yours, but still more on account of your charming wife. But there is no great harm done, after all. Send the linens back to me, and accounts shall be square between us, and I will submit to the loss of the interest.”
“Ah, but monsieur, you are too good, and madame will be recognizant to you forever for your gracious politeness. But, my God! it is impossible that I return to you the linen. I have sold it, monsieur — I have sold it all!”
“Sold it?” reiterated Mr. Schulemberg, regardless of the rules of etiquette — “sold it? And, to whom, pray, and when?”
“Sold it?” reiterated Mr. Schulemberg, regardless of the rules of etiquette — “sold it? And to whom, pray, and when?”
“To M. Garcia, my father-in-the-law,” answered the catechumen blandly; “and it is a week that he has received it.”
“Then I must bid you a good morning, sir,” said Mr. Schulemberg, rising hastily, and collecting his hat and gloves; “for I must lose no time in taking measures to recover the goods before they have changed hands again.”
“Pardon, monsieur,” interrupted the poor but honest Malibran. “But it is too late! One cannot regain them. M. Garcia embarked himself for Mexico yesterday morning, and carried them all with him.”
Imagine the consternation and rage of poor M. Schulemberg at finding that he was sold, though the goods were not! I 215 decline reporting the conversation any further, lest its strength of expression and force of expletive might be too much for the more queasy of my readers. Suffice it to say that the swindlee, if I may be allowed the royalty of coining a word, at once freed his own mind, and imprisoned the body of M. Malibran; for in those days imprisonment for debt was a recognized institution, and I think few of its strongest opponents will deny that this was a case to which it was no abuse to apply it.
I regret that I am compelled to leave this exemplary merchant in captivity; but the exigencies of my story, the moral of which beckons me away to the distant coast of Mexico, require it at my hands. The reader may be consoled, however, by the knowledge that he obtained his liberation in due time, his Dutch creditor being entirely satisfied that nothing whatsoever could be squeezed out of him by passing him between the bars of the debtor’s prison, though that was all the satisfaction he ever did get. How he accompanied his young wife to Europe, and there lived by the coining of her voice into drachmas, as her father had done before him, needs not to be told here; nor yet how she was divorced from him, and made another matrimonial venture in partnership with De B——. I have nothing to do with him or her, after the bargain and sale of which she was the object, and the consequences which immediately resulted from it; and here, accordingly, I take my leave of them. But my story is not quite done yet: it must now pursue the fortunes of the enterprising impresario, Signor Garcia, who had so deftly turned his daughter into a ship-load of fine linens.
This excellent person sailed, as M. Malibran told Mr. Schulemberg, for Vera Cruz, with an assorted cargo, consisting of 216 singers, fiddlers, and, as aforesaid, of Mynheer Van Holland’s fine linens. The voyage was as prosperous as was due to such an argosy. If a single Amphion could not be drowned by the utmost malice of gods and men, so long as he kept his voice in order, what possible mishap could befall a whole shipload of them? The vessel arrived safely under the shadow of San Juan de Ulua; and her precious freight in all its varieties was welcomed with a tropical enthusiasm. The market was bare of linen and of song, and it was hard to say which found the readiest sale. Competition raised the price of both articles to a fabulous height. So the good Garcia had the benevolent satisfaction of clothing the naked, and making the ears that heard him to bless him at the same time. After selling his linens at a great advance on the cost-price, considering he had only paid his daughter for them, and having given a series of the most successful concerts ever known in those latitudes, Signor Garcia set forth for the Aztec City. As the relations of meum and teum were not upon the most satisfactory footing just then at Vera Cruz, he though it most prudent to carry his well-won treasure with him to the capital. His progress thither was a triumphal procession. Not Cortés, not General Scott himself, marched more gloriously along the steep and rugged road that leads from the seacoast to the table-land than did this son of song. Every city on his line of march was the monument of a victory, and from each one he levied tribute, and bore spoils away. And the vanquished thanked him for this spoiling of their goods.
Arrived at the splendid city, at that time the larges and most populous on the North American continent, he speedily made himself master of it — a welcome conqueror. The Mexicans, with the genuine love for song of their southern ancestors, had had but few opportunities for gratifying it such 217 as that now offered to them. Garcia was a tenor of great compass, and a most skilful and accomplished singer. The artists who accompanied him were of a high order of merit, if not of the very first class. Mexico had never heard the like, and, though a hard-money country, was glad to take their notes, and give them gold in return. They were feasted and flattered in the intervals of the concerts, and the bright eyes of señoras and señoritas rained influence upon them on the off nights, as their fair hands rained flowers upon the on ones. And they have a very pleasant way, in those golden realms, of giving ornaments of diamonds and other precious stones to virtuous singers, as we give pencil-cases and gold watches to meritorious railway-conductors and hotel-clerks, as a testimonial of the sense we entertain of their private characters and public services. The gorgeous East herself never showered “on her kings barbaric pearl and gold” with a richer hand than the city of Mexico poured out the glittering rain over the portly person of the happy Garcia. Saturated at length with the golden flood and its foam of peal and diamond — if, indeed, singer were ever capable of such saturation, and were not rather permeable forever, like a sieve of the Danaïdes — saturated, or satisfied that it was all run out, he prepared to take up his line of march back again to the City of the True Cross. Mexico mourned over his going, and sent him forth upon his way with blessings, and prayers for his safe return.
But alas! the blessing and the prayers were alike vain. The saints were either deaf or busy, or had gone a journey, and either did not hear or did not mind the vows that were sent up to them. At any rate, they did not take that care of the worthy Garcia which their devotees had a right to expect of them. Turning his back on the halls of the Montezumas, where he had reveled so sumptuously, he proceeded on his way toward 218 the Atlantic coast, as fast as his mules thought fit to carry him and his beloved treasure. With the proceeds of his linens and his lungs, he was rich enough to retire from the vicissitudes of operatic life to some safe retreat in his native Spain or his adoptive Italy. Filled with happy imaginings, he fared onward, the bells of his mules keeping time with the melodious joy of his heart, until he had descended from the tierra caliente to the wilder region on the hither side of Jalapa. As the narrow road turned sharply, at the foot of a steeper descent than common, into a dreary valley, made yet more gloomy by the shadow of the hill behind intercepting the sun, though the afternoon was not far advanced, the impresario was made unpleasantly aware of the transitory nature of man’s hopes and the vanity of his joys. When his train wound into the rough open space, it found itself surrounded by a troop of men whose looks and gestures bespoke their function without the intermediation of an interpreter. But no interpreter was needed in this case, as Signor Garcia was a Spaniard by birth, and their expressive pantomime was a sufficiently eloquent substitute for speech. In plain English, he had fallen among thieves, with very little chance of any good Samaritan coming by to help him.
Now, Signor Garcia had had dealings with brigands and banditti all his operatic life. Indeed, he had often drilled them till they were perfect in their exercises, and got them up regardless of expense. Under his direction they had often rushed forward to the footlights, pouring into the helpless mass before them repeated volleys of explosive crotchets. But this was a very different chorus that now saluted his eyes., It was the real thing, instead of the make-believe, and in the opinion of Signor Garcia, at least, very much inferior to it. Instead of the steeple-crowned hat, jauntily feathered and looped, these 219 irregulars wore huge sombreros, much the worse for time and weather, flapped over their faces. For the velvet jacket with the two-inch tail, which had nearly broken up the friendship between Mr. Pickwick and Mr. Tupman, when the latter gentleman proposed induing himself with one, on the occasion of Mrs. Leo Hunter’s fancy-dress breakfast — for this integument, I say, these minions of the moon had blankets round their shoulders, thrown back in preparation for actual service. Instead of those authentic cross-garterings in which your true bandit rejoices, like a new Malvolio, to tie up his legs, perhaps to keep them running away, these false knaves wore, some of them, ragged boots up to their thighs, while others had no crural coverings at all, and only rough sandals, such as the Indians there use, between their feet and the ground. They were picturesque, perhaps, but not attractive to wealthy travelers. But the wealthy travelers were attractive to them: so they came together, all the same. Such as they were, however, there they were, fierce, sad, and sallow, with vicious-looking knives in their belts, and guns of various parentage in their hands, while their captain bade our good man stand and deliver.
There was no room for choice. He had an escort, to be sure; but it was entirely unequal to the emergency, even if it were not, as was afterward shrewdly suspected, in league with the robbers. The enemy had the advantage of arms, position, and numbers; and there was nothing for him to do but to disgorge his hoarded gains at once, or to have his breath stopped first, and his estate summarily administered upon afterward, by these his casual heirs, as the King of France, by virtue of his Droit d’Aubaine, would have confiscated Yorick’s six shirts and pair of black silk breeches, in spite of his eloquent protest against such injustice, had he chanced to die in his Most 220 Christian Majesty’s dominions. As Signor Garcia had an estate in his breath, from which he could draw a larger yearly rent than the rolls of many a Spanish grandee could boast, he wisely chose the part of discretion, and surrendered at the same. His new acquaintances showed themselves expert practitioners in the breaking open of trunks and the rifling of treasure-boxes. All his beloved doubloons, all his cherished dollars, for the which no Yankee ever felt a stronger passion, took swift wings, and flew from his coffers to alight in the hands of the adversary. The sacred recesses of his pockets, and those of his companions, were sacred no longer from the sacrilegious hands of the spoilers. The breastpins were ravished from the shirt-frills — for in those days studs were not — and the rings snatched from the reluctant fingers. All the shining testimonials of Mexican admiration were transferred with the celerity of magic into the possession of the chivalry of the road. Not Faulconbridge himself could have been more resolved to come on at the beckoning of gold and silver than were they, and, good Catholics though they were, it is most likely that Bell, Book, and Candle would have had as little restraining influence over them as he professed to feel.
At last they rested from their labors. To the victors belonged the spoils, as they discovered with instinctive sagacity that they should do, though the apothegm had not yet received the authentic seal of American statesmanship. Science and skill had done their utmost, and poor Garcia and his companions in misery stood in the center of the ring, stripped of everything but the clothes on their backs. The duty of the day being satisfactorily performed, the victors felt that they had a right to some relaxation after their toils. And now a change came over them which might have reminded Signor Garcia of the banditti of the green-room, with whose habits he had been so 221 long familiar, and whose operations he had himself directed. Some one of the troop, who, however “fit for stratagems and spoils,” had yet music in his soul, called aloud for a song. The idea was hailed with acclamations. Not satisfied with the capitalized results of his voice to which they had helped themselves, they were unwilling to let their prey go until they had also ravished from him some specimens of the airy mintage whence they had issued. Accordingly the Catholic vagabonds seated themselves on the ground, a fuliginous parterre to look upon, and called upon Garcia for a song. A rock which projected itself from the side of the hill served for a stage as well as the “green plat” in the wood near Athens did for the company of Manager Quince, and there was no need of “a tiring-room,” as poor Garcia had no clothes to change for those he stood in. Not the Hebrews by the waters of Babylon, when their captors demanded of them a song of Zion, had less stomach for the task. But the prime tenor was now before an audience that would brook neither denial nor excuse. Nor hoarseness, nor catarrh, nor sudden illness, certified unto by the friendly physician, would avail him now. The demand was irresistible; for, when he hesitated, the persuasive though stern mouth of a musket hinted to him in expressive silence that he had better prevent its speech with song.
So he had to make his first appearance upon that “unworthy scaffold,” before an audience which, multifold as his experience had been, was one such as he had never sung to yet. As the shadows of evening began to fall, rough torches of pine-wood were lighted, and shed a glare such as Salvator Rosa loved to kindle, upon a scene such as he delighted to paint. The rascals had taste; that the tenor himself could not deny. They knew the choice bits of the operas which held the stage forty years ago, and they called for them wisely, and applauded 222 his efforts vociferously. Nay, more, in the height of their enthusiasm they would toss him one of his own doubloons or dollars, instead of the bouquets usually hurled at well-deserving singers. They well judged that these flowers that never fade would be the tribute he would value most, and so they rewarded his meritorious strains out of his own stores, as Claude Duval or Richard Turpin, in the golden days of highway robbery, would sometimes generously return a guinea to a traveler he had just lightened of his purse, to enable him to continue his journey. It was lucky for the unfortunate Garcia that their approbation took this solid shape, or he would have been badly off indeed; for it was all he had to begin the world with over again. After his appreciating audience had exhausted their musical repertory, and had as many encores as they thought good, they broke up the concert, and betook themselves to their fastnesses among the mountains, leaving their patient to find his way to the coast as best he might, with a pocket as light as his soul was heavy. At Vera Cruz a concert or two furnished him with the means of embarking himself and his troop for Europe, and leaving the New World forever behind him.
And here I must leave him, for my story is done. The reader hungering for a moral may discern that, though Signor Garcia received the price he asked for his lovely daughter, it advantaged him nothing, and that he not only lost it all, but it was the occasion of his losing everything else he had. This is very well as far as it goes; but then it is equally true that M. Malibran actually obtained his wife, and that Mynheer Van Holland paid for her. I dare say all this can be reconciled with the eternal fitness of things; but I protest I don’t see how it is to be done. It is “all a muddle” in my mind. I cannot even affirm that the banditti were ever hanged; and I am quite 223 sure that the unlucky Dutch merchant whose goods were so comically mixed up with the whole history never had any poetical or material justice for his loss of them. But it is as much the reader’s business as mine to settle these casuistries. I only undertook to tell him who it was that paid for the Prima Donna and I have done it.
“I consider that a good story,” said the Consul, when he had finished the narration out of which I have compounded the foregoing, “and, what is not always the case with a good story, it is a true one.”
I cordially concurred with my honored friend in this opinion, and if the reader should unfortunately differ from me on this point, I beg him to believe that it is entirely my fault. As the Consul told it to me, it was an excellent good story.
“Poor Mynheer Van Holland,” he added, laughing, “never got over that adventure. Not that the loss was material to him — he was too rich for that — but the provocation of his fifty thousand dollars going to a parcel of Mexican ladrones, after buying an opera-singer for a Frenchman on its way, was enough to rouse even Dutch human nature to the swearing-point. He could not abide either Frenchmen or opera-singers all the rest of his life. And, by Jove! I don’t wonder at it.”
Nor I, neither, for the matter of that.
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