At a little distance three young girls sat sewing.
The aunt would have risen to welcome me, but I prevented her, asked her how she did, and smilingly congratulated her on her company. She smiled back, but the Capuchins sat as firm as two stocks, without honouring me with as much as a glance.
I took a chair and sat down beside her.
She was near her fiftieth year, though some might have doubted whether she would ever see it again; her manner was good and honest, and her features bore the traces of the beauty that time had ruined.
Although I am not a prejudiced man, the presence of the two evil-smelling monks annoyed me extremely. I thought the obstinate way in which they stayed little less than an insult. True they were men like myself, in spite of their goats' beards and dirty frocks, and consequently were liable to the same desires as I; but for all that I found them wholly intolerable. I could not shame them without shaming the lady, and they knew it; monks are adepts at such calculations.
I have travelled all over Europe, but France is the only country in which I saw a decent and respectable clergy.
At the end of a quarter of an hour I could contain myself no longer, and told the aunt that I wished to say something to her in private. I thought the two satyrs would have taken the hint, but I counted without my host. The aunt arose, however, and took me into the next room.
I asked my question as delicately as possible, and she replied,--
"Alas! I have only too great a need of twenty ducats (about eighty francs) to pay my rent."
I gave her the money on the spot, and I saw that she was very grateful, but I left her before she could express her feelings.
Here I must tell my readers (if I ever have any) of an event which took place on that same day.
As I was dining in my room by myself, I was told that a Venetian gentleman who said he knew me wished to speak to me.
I ordered him to be shewn. in, and though his face was not wholly unknown to me I could not recollect who he was.
He was tall, thin and wretched, misery and hunger spewing plainly in his every feature; his beard was long, his head shaven, his robe a dingy brown, and bound about him with a coarse cord, whence hung a rosary and a dirty handkerchief. In the left hand he bore a basket, and in the right a long stick; his form is still before me, but I think of him not as a humble penitent, but as a being in the last state of desperation; almost an assassin.
"Who are you?" I said at length. "I think I have seen you before, and yet . . ."
"I will soon tell you my name and the story of my woes; but first give me something to eat, for I am dying of hunger. I have had nothing but bad soup for the last few days."
"Certainly; go downstairs and have your dinner, and then come back to me; you can't eat and speak at the same time."
My man went down to give him his meal, and I gave instructions that I was not to be left alone with him as he terrified me.
I felt sure that I ought to know him, and longed to hear his story.
In three quarters of an hour he came up again, looking like some one in a high fever.
"Sit down," said I, "and speak freely."
"My name is Albergoni."
Albergoni was a gentleman of Padua, and one of my most intimate friends twenty-five years before. He was provided with a small fortune, but an abundance of wit, and had a great leaning towards pleasure and the exercise of satire. He laughed at the police and the cheated husbands, indulged in Venus and Bacchus to excess, sacrificed to the god of pederasty, and gamed incessantly. He was now hideously ugly, but when I knew him first he was a very Antinous.
He told me the following story:
"A club of young rakes, of whom I was one, had a casino at the Zuecca; we passed many a pleasant hour there without hurting anyone. Some one imagined that these meetings were the scenes of unlawful pleasures, the engines of the law were secretly directed against us, and the casino was shut up, and we were ordered to be arrested.