THE ELIXIR OF LIFE
One winter evening, in a princely palace at Ferrara, Don Juan Belvidero was giving a banquet to a prince of the house of Este. A banquet in those times was a marvelous spectacle which only royal wealth or the power of a mightly [sic] lord could furnish forth. Seated about a table lit up with perfumed tapers, seven laughter-loving women were interchanging sweet talk. The white marble of the noble works of art about them stood out against the red stucco walls, and made strong contrasts with the rich Turkey carpets. Clad in satin, glittering with gold, and covered with gems less brilliant than their eyes, each told a tale of energetic passions as diverse as their styles of beauty. They differed neither in their ideas nor in their language; but the expression of their eyes, their glances, occasional gestures, or the tones of their voices supplied a commentary, dissolute, wanton, melancholy, or satirical, to their words.
One seemed to be saying—“The frozen heart of age might kindle at my beauty.”
Another—“I love to lounge upon cushions, and think with rapture of my adorers.”
A third, a neophyte at these banquets, was inclined to blush. “I feel remorse in the depths of my heart! I am a Catholic, and afraid of hell. But I love you, I love you so that I can sacrifice my hereafter to you.”
The fourth drained a cup of Chian wine. “Give me a joyous life!” she cried; “I begin life afresh each day with the dawn. Forgetful of the past, with the intoxication of yesterday’s rapture still upon me, I drink deep of life—a whole lifetime of pleasure and of love!”
The woman who sat next to Juan Belvidero looked at him with a feverish glitter in her eyes. She was silent. Then—“I should need no hired bravo to kill my lover if he forsook me!” she cried at last, and laughed, but the marvelously wrought gold comfit box in her fingers was crushed by her convulsive clutch.
“When are you to be Grand Duke?” asked the sixth. There was the frenzy of a Bacchante in her eyes, and her teeth gleamed between the lips parted with a smile of cruel glee.
“Yes, when is that father of yours going to die?” asked the seventh, throwing her bouquet at Don Juan with bewitching playfulness. It was a childish girl who spoke, and the speaker was wont to make sport of sacred things.
“Oh! don’t talk about it,” cried Don Juan, the young and handsome giver of the banquet. “There is but one eternal father, and, as ill luck will have it, he is mine.”
The seven Ferrarese, Don Juan’s friends, the Prince himself, gave a cry of horror. Two hundred years later, in the days of Louis XV., people of taste would have laughed at this witticism. Or was it, perhaps, that at the outset of an orgy there is a certain unwonted lucidity of mind? Despite the taper light, the clamor of the senses, the gleam of gold and silver, the fumes of wine, and the exquisite beauty of the women, there may perhaps have been in the depths of the revelers’ hearts some struggling glimmer of reverence for things divine and human, until it was drowned in glowing floods of wine! Yet even then the flowers had been crushed, eyes were growing dull, and drunkenness, in Rabelais’ phrase, had “taken possession of them down to their sandals.”