by Matthew Lewis
I (Dave) read this novel recently (2006) and came across this beautiful extract which fully demonstrates the mystery and intrigue of the veil. To set the scene, they are all sat in Madrid Cathedral in the Middle Ages waiting impatiently for the service of Holy Mass to commence…
The voice came from a female, the delicacy and elegance of whose figure inspired the youths with the most lively curiosity to view the face to which it belonged. This satisfaction was denied them. The features were hidden by a thick veil; but struggling through the crowd had deranged it sufficiently to discover a neck which for symmetry and beauty might have vied with the Medicean Venus. It was of the most dazzling whiteness, and received additional charms from being shaded by the tresses of her long fair hair, which descended in ringlets to her waist. Her figure was rather below than above the middle size: it was light and airy as that of an Hamadryad. Her bosom was carefully veiled. Her dress was white; it was fastened by a blue sash, and just permitted to peep out from under it a little foot of the most delicate proportions. A chaplet of large grains hung upon her arm, and her face was covered by a veil of thick black gauze. Such was the female, to whom the youngest of the cavaliers now offered his seat, while the other thought it necessary to pay the same attention to her companion.
The old lady with many expressions of gratitude, but without much difficulty, accepted the offer, and seated herself: the young one followed her example, but made no other compliment than a simple and graceful reverence. Don Lorenzo placed himself near her; but first he whispered a few words in his friend’s ear, who immediately took the hint, and endeavoured to draw off the old woman’s attention from her lovely charge.
‘You are doubtless lately arrived at Madrid,’ said Lorenzo to his fair neighbour; ‘it is impossible that such charms should have long remained unobserved; and had not this been your first public appearance, the envy of the women and the adoration of the men would have rendered you already sufficiently remarkable.’
He paused, in expectation of an answer. As his speech did not absolutely require one, the lady did not open her lips: After a few moments he resumed his discourse:
‘Am I wrong in supposing you to be a stranger to Madrid?’
The lady hesitated; and at last, in so low a voice as to be scarcely intelligible, she made shift to answer ‘ ‘No, Segnor.’
‘Do you intend making a stay of any length?’
‘I should esteem myself fortunate, were it in my power to contribute to making your abode agreeable. I am well known at Madrid, and my family has some interest at court. If I can be of any service, you cannot honour or oblige me more than by permitting me to be of use to you.’ ‘ ‘Surely,’ said he to himself, ‘she cannot answer that by a monosyllable; now she must say something to me.’
Lorenzo was deceived, for the lady answered only by a bow.
By this time he had discovered that his neighbour was not very conversible; but whether her silence proceeded from pride, discretion, timidity, or idiotism, he was still unable to decide.
After a pause of some minutes ‘ ‘It is certainly from your being a stranger,’ said he, ‘and as yet unacquainted with our customs, that you continue to wear your veil. Permit me please to remove it.’
At the same time he advanced his hand towards the gauze: the lady raised hers to prevent him.
‘I never unveil in public, Segnor.’
Extract taken from Chapter 1 pages 13-14 of the Penguin Classics Edition.