Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
The Court of the Queen of Portugal
By William Beckford (17601844)
From Letters from Portugal
I WAS hardly up before the Grand Prior and Mr. Street were announced; the latter abusing kings, queens, and princes with all his might, and roaring after liberty and independence; the former complaining of fogs and damps.
As soon as the advocate for republicanism had taken his departure, we went by appointment to the archbishop confessors,and were immediately admitted into his sanctum sanctorum, a snug apartment communicating by a winding staircase with that of the Queen, and hung with bright, lively tapestry. A lay brother, fat, round, buffoonical, and to the full as coarse and vulgar as any carter or muleteer in Christendom, entertained us with some very amusing, though not the most decent, palace stories, till his patron came forth.
Those who expect to see the Grand Inquisitor of Portugal a doleful, meagre figure, with eyes of reproof and malediction, would be disappointed. A pleasanter or more honest countenance than that kind Heaven has blessed him with one has seldom the pleasure of looking upon. He received me in the most open, cordial manner, and I have reason to think I am in mighty favour.
We talked about archbishops in England being married. Pray, said the prelate, are not your archbishops strange fellows? consecrated in ale-houses, and good bottle companions? I have been told that mad-cap Lord Tyrawley was an archbishop at home. You may imagine how much I laughed at this inconceivable nonsense; and though I cannot say, speaking of his right reverence, that truths divine came mended from his tongue, it may be allowed, that nonsense itself became more conspicuously nonsensical, flowing from so revered a source.
Whilst we sat in the windows of the saloon, listening to a band of regimental music, we saw João Antonio de Castro, the ingenious mechanician, who invented the present method of lighting Lisbon, two or three solemn Dominicans, and a famous court fool in a tawdry gala suit, bedizened with mock orders, coming up the steps which lead to the great audience chamber, all together. Ay, ay, said the lay brother, who is a shrewd, comical fellow, behold a true picture of our customers! Three sorts of persons find their way most readily into this palace; men of superior abilities, buffoons, and saints; the first soon lose what cleverness they possessed, the saints become martyrs, and the buffoons alone prosper.
To all this the archbishop gave his assent by a very significant nod of the head, and being, as I have already told you, in a most gracious, communicative disposition, would not permit me to go away, when I rose to take leave of him.
Taking me by the tips of the fingers, he led me along through a number of shady rooms and dark passages to a private door, which opened from the Queens presence-chamber, into a vast saloon, crowded, I really believe, by half the dignitaries of the kingdom: here were bishops, heads of orders, secretaries of state, generals, lords of the bed-chamber, and courtiers of all denominations, as fine and as conspicuous as embroidered uniforms, stars, crosses, and gold keys could make them.
The astonishment of this group at our sudden apparition was truly laughable, and, indeed, no wonder; we must have appeared on the point of beginning a minuetthe portly archbishop in his monastic flowing drapery, spreading himself out like a turkey in full pride, and myself bowing and advancing in a sort of pasgrave, blinking all the while like an owl in sunshine, thanks to my rapid transition from darkness to the most glaring daylight.
Down went half the party upon their knees, some with petitions and some with memorials; those begging for places and promotions, and these for benedictions, of which my revered conductor was by no means prodigal. He seemed to treat all these eager demonstrations of fawning servility with the most contemptuous composure, and pushing through the crowd which divided respectfully to give us passage, beckoned the Viscount Ponte de Lima, the Marquis of Lavradio, the Count dObidos, and two or three of the lords in waiting, into a mean little room, not above twenty by fourteen.
After a deal of adulatory complimentation in a most subdued tone from the circle of courtiers, for which they got nothing in return but rebuffs and grunting, the archbishop drew his chair close to mine, and said with a very distinct and audible pronunciation, My dear Englishman, these are all a parcel of flattering scoundrels; do not believe one word they say to you. Though they glitter like gold, mud is not meanerI know them well. Here, continued he, holding up the flap of my coat, is a proof of English prudence; this little button to secure the pocket is a precious contrivance, especially in grand company; do not leave it off, or adopt any of our fashions, or you will repent it.
This sally of wit was received with the most resigned complacency by those who had inspired it, and, staring with all my eyes, and listening with all my ears, I could hardly credit either upon seeing the most complaisant gesticulations, and hearing the most abject protestations of devoted attachment to his right reverences sacred person from all the company.