Such was the state of parties in the Court of Philip the Third at the time in which we commence our narrative in the ante-chamber of Don Roderigo Calderon.
"It is not to be endured," said Don Felix de Castro, an old noble, whose sharp features and diminutive stature proclaimed the purity of his blood and the antiquity of his descent.
"Just three-quarters of an hour and five minutes have I waited for audience to a fellow who would once have thought himself honoured if I had ordered him to call my coach," said Don Diego Sarmiento de Mendo.
"Then, if it chafe you so much, gentlemen, why come you here at all? I dare say Don Roderigo can dispense with your attendance."
This was said bluntly by a young noble of good mien, whose impetuous and irritable temperament betrayed itself by an impatience of gesture and motion unusual amongst his countrymen. Sometimes he walked, with uneven strides, to and fro the apartments, unheeding the stately groups whom he jostled, or the reproving looks that he attracted; sometimes he paused abruptly, raised his eyes, muttered, twitched his cloak, or played with his sword-knot; or, turning abruptly round upon his solemn neighbours, as some remark on his strange bearing struck his ear, brought the blood to many a haughty cheek by his stern gaze of defiance and disdain. It was easy to perceive that this personage belonged to the tribe--rash, vain, and young--who are eager to take offence, and to provoke quarrel. Nevertheless, the cavalier had noble and great qualities. A stranger to courts, in the camp he was renowned for a chivalrous generosity and an extravagant valour, that emulated the ancient heroes of Spanish romaunt and song. His was a dawn that promised a hot noon and a glorious eve. The name of this brave soldier was Martin Fonseca. He was of an ancient but impoverished house, and related in a remote degree to the Duke de Lerma. In his earliest youth he had had cause to consider himself the heir to a wealthy uncle on his mother's side; and with those expectations, while still but a boy, he had been invited to court by the cardinal-duke. Here, however, the rude and blunt sincerity of his bearing had so greatly shocked the formal hypocrisies of the court, and had more than once so seriously offended the minister, that his powerful kinsman gave up all thought of pushing Fonseca's fortunes at Madrid, and meditated some plausible excuse for banishing him from court. At this time the rich uncle, hitherto childless, married a second time, and was blessed with an heir. It was no longer necessary to keep terms with Don Martin; and he suddenly received an order to join the army on the frontiers. Here his courage soon distinguished him; but his honest nature still stood in the way of his promotion. Several years elapsed, and his rise had been infinitely slower than that of men not less inferior to him in birth than merit. Some months since, he had repaired to Madrid to enforce his claims upon the government; but instead of advancing his suit, he had contrived to effect a serious breach with the cardinal, and been abruptly ordered back to the camp. Once more he appeared at Madrid; but this time it was not to plead desert and demand honours.
In any country but Spain under the reign of Philip the Third, Martin Fonseca would have risen early to high fortunes. But, as we have said, his talents were not those of the flatterer or the hypocrite; and it was a matter of astonishment to the calculators round him to see Don Martin Fonseca in the ante-room of Roderigo Calderon, Count Oliva, Marquis de Siete Iglesias, secretary to the King, and parasite and favourite of the Infant of Spain.
"Why come you here at all?" repeated the young soldier.
"Senor," answered Don Felix de Castro, with great gravity, "we have business with Don Roderigo. Men of our station must attend to the affairs of the state, no matter by whom transacted."
"That is, you must crawl on your knees to ask for pensions and governorships, and transact the affairs of the state by putting your hands into its coffers."
"Senor!" growled Don Felix, angrily, as his hand played with his sword- belt.
"Tush!" said the young man, scornfully turning on his heel.
The folding-doors were thrown open, and all conversation ceased at the entrance of Don Roderigo Calderon.
This remarkable personage had risen from the situation of a confidential scribe to the Duke of Lerma to the nominal rank of secretary to the King --to the real station of autocrat of Spain. The birth of the favourite of fortune was exceedingly obscure. He had long affected to conceal it; but when he found curiosity had proceeded into serious investigation of his origin, he had suddenly appeared to make a virtue of necessity; proclaimed of his own accord that his father was a common soldier of Valladolid, and even invited to Madrid, and lodged in his own palace, his low-born progenitor. This prudent frankness disarmed malevolence on the score of birth. But when the old soldier died, rumours went abroad that he had confessed on his death-bed that he was not in any way related to Calderon; that he had submitted to an imposture which secured to his old age so respectable and luxurious an asylum; and that he knew not for what end Calderon had forced upon him the honours of spurious parentship. This tale, which, ridiculed by most, was yet believed by some, gave rise to darker reports concerning one on whom the eyes of all Spain were fixed.