I cannot begin a sketch of the life of this great man better than by trying to describe a scene so picturesque, so tragic in the eyes of those who are wont to mourn over human follies, so comic in the eyes of those who prefer to laugh over them, that the reader will not be likely to forget either it or the actors in it.
It is a darkened chamber in the College of Alcala, in the year 1562, where lies, probably in a huge four-post bed, shrouded in stifling hangings, the heir-apparent of the greatest empire in the then world, Don Carlos, only son of Philip II., and heir-apparent of Spain, the Netherlands, and all the Indies. A short sickly boy of sixteen, with a bull head, a crooked shoulder, a short leg, and a brutal temper, he will not be missed by the world if he should die. His profligate career seems to have brought its own punishment. To the scandal of his father, who tolerated no one’s vices save his own, as well as to the scandal of the university authorities of Alcala, he has been scouring the streets at the head of the most profligate students, insulting women, even ladies of rank, and amenable only to his lovely young stepmother, Elizabeth of Valois, Isabel de la Paz, as the Spaniards call her, the daughter of Catherine de Medicis, and sister of the King of France. Don Carlos should have married her, had not his worthy father found it more advantageous for the crown of Spain, as well as more pleasant for him Philip, to marry her himself. Whence came heart-burnings, rage, jealousies, romances, calumnies, of which two last–in as far at least as they concern poor Elizabeth–no wise man now believes a word.
Going on some errand on which he had no business–there are two stories, neither of them creditable nor necessary to repeat–Don Carlos has fallen down stairs and broken his head. He comes, by his Portuguese mother’s side, of a house deeply tainted with insanity; and such an injury may have serious consequences. However, for nine days the wound goes on well, and Don Carlos, having had a wholesome fright, is, according to Doctor Olivarez, the medico de camara, a very good lad, and lives on chicken broth and dried plums. But on the tenth day comes on numbness of the left side, acute pains in the head, and then gradually shivering, high fever, erysipelas. His head and neck swell to an enormous size; then comes raging delirium, then stupefaction, and Don Carlos lies as one dead.
A modern surgeon would, probably, thanks to that training of which Vesalius may be almost called the father, have had little difficulty in finding out what was the matter with the luckless lad, and little difficulty in removing the evil, if it had not gone too far. But the Spanish physicians were then, as many of them are said to be still, as far behind the world in surgery as in other things; and indeed surgery itself was then in its infancy, because men, ever since the early Greek schools of Alexandria had died out, had been for centuries feeding their minds with anything rather than with facts. Therefore the learned morosophs who were gathered round Don Carlos’s sick bed had become, according to their own confession, utterly confused, terrified, and at their wits’ end.
It is the 7th of May, the eighteenth day after the accident, according to Olivarez’ story: he and Dr. Vega have been bleeding the unhappy prince, enlarging the wound twice, and torturing him seemingly on mere guesses. “I believe,” says Olivarez, “that all was done well: but as I have said, in wounds in the head there are strange labyrinths.” So on the 7th they stand round the bed in despair. Don Garcia de Toledo, the prince’s faithful governor, is sitting by him, worn out with sleepless nights, and trying to supply to the poor boy that mother’s tenderness which he has never known. Alva too is there, stern, self-compressed, most terrible, and yet most beautiful. He has a God on earth, and that is Philip his master; and though he has borne much from Don Carlos already, and will have to bear more, yet the wretched lad is to him as a son of God, a second deity, who will by right divine succeed to the inheritance of the first; and he watches this lesser deity struggling between life and death with an intensity of which we, in these less loyal days, can form no notion. One would be glad to have a glimpse of what passed through that mind, so subtle and so ruthless, so disciplined and so loyal withal: but Alva was a man who was not given to speak his mind, but to act it.