"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."