CH. X. -- Gil Blas meets with the poet Nunez by accident, and learns that he has written a tragedy, which is on the point of being brought out at the theatre royal. The ill fortune of the piece, and the good fortune of its author.
THE minister began to pick up his crumbs, and myself consequently to get into feather again, when one evening I went out alone in the carriage to take an airing. On the road I met the poet of the Asturias, who had been lost to my knowledge ever since his discharge from the hospital. He was very decently dressed. I called him up, gave him a seat in my carriage, and we drove together to Saint Jerome's meadow.
Master Nunez, said I, it is lucky for me to have met you accidentally; for otherwise I should not have had the pleasure . . . . No severe speeches, Santillane, interrupted he with considerable eagerness: I most own frankly that I did not mean to keep up your acquaintance, and I will tell you the reason. You promised me a good situation provided I abjured poetry, but I have found a very excellent one, on condition of keeping my talents in constant play. I accepted the latter alternative, as squaring best with my own humour. A friend of mine got me an employment under Don Bertrand Gomez Del Ribero, treasurer of the king's galleys. This Don Bertrand, wanting to have a wit in his pay, and finding my turn for poetical composition very much in unison with his own sense of what is excellent, has chosen me in preference to five or six authors who offered themselves as candidates for the place of his private secretary.
I am delighted at the news, my dear Fabricio, said I, for this Don Bertrand must be very rich. Rich indeed! answered he; they say that he does not know himself how much he is worth. However that may be, my business under him is as follows. He prides himself on his turn for gallantry, at the same time wishing to pass for a man of genius: he therefore keeps up an epistolary intercourse of wit with several ladies who have an infinite deal, and borrows my brain to indite such letters as may amplify the opinion of his sprightliness and elegance. I write to one for him in verse, to another in prose, and sometimes carry the letters myself, to prove the agility of my heels as well as the ingenuity of my head.
But you do not tell me, said I, what I most want to know. Are you well paid for your epigrammatic cards of compliment? Yes, most plentifully, answered he. Rich men are not always open-handed; and I know some who are downright curmudgeons; but Don Bertrand has behaved in the most handsome manner. Besides a salary of two hundred pistoles, I receive some little occasional perquisites from him, sufficient to set me above the world, and enable me to live on an equal footing with some choice spirits of the literary circles, who are willing, like myself, to set care at defiance. But then, resumed I, has your treasurer critical skill enough to distinguish the beauties of a performance from its blemishes? The least likely man in the world, answered Nunez: a flippant-tongued smatterer, with a miserable assortment of materials for judging. Yet he gives himself out for chief justice and lord president of Apollo's tribunal. His decisions are adventurous, if not always lucky; while his opinions are maintained in so high a tone and with so bullying a challenge of infallibility, that nine times out of ten the issue of an argument is silence, though not conviction, on the part of the opponent, as a measure of precaution against the gathering storm of foul language and contemptuous sneers.
You may readily suppose, continued he, that I take especial care never to contradict him, though it almost exceeds human patience to forbear: for, to say nothing of the unpalatable phrases that might be hailed down on my defenceless head, I should stand a very good chance of being shoved by the shoulders out of doors. I therefore am discreet enough to approve what he praises, and to condemn without mitigation or appeal whatever he is pleased to find fault with. By this easy compliance, for poets are compelled to acquire a knack of knocking under to those by whom they live, not even excepting their booksellers, I have gained the esteem and friendship of my patron. He has employed me to write a tragedy on a plot of his own. I have executed it under his inspection; and if the piece succeeds, a percentage on the laud and honour must accrue to him.
I asked our poet what was the title of his tragedy. He informed me that it was "The Count of Saldagna," and that it would come out in two or three days. I told him that I wished it all possible success, and thought so favour ably of his genius, as to entertain considerable hopes. So do I, said he, but hope never tells a more flattering tale than in the ear of a dramatic author. You might as well attempt to fix the wind by nailing the weathercock, as speculate on the reception of a new piece with an audience.
At length, the day of performance arrived. I could not go to the play, being prevented by official business. The only thing to be done was to send Scipio, that he might bring me back word how it went off; for I was sincerely interested in the event. After waiting impatiently for his return, in he came with a long face which boded no good. Well, said I, how was "The Count of Saldagna" welcomed by the critics? Very roughly, answered he; never was there a play more brutally handled; I left the house in high anger at the injustice and insolence of the pit. It serves him right, rejoined I. Nunez is no better than a madman, to he always running his head against the stone walls of a theatre. If he was in his senses, could he have preferred the hisses and catcalls of an unfeeling mob, to the ease and dignity he might have commanded under my patronage? Thus did I inveigh with friendly vehemence against the poet of the Asturias, and disturb the even tenor of my mind for an event, which the sufferer hailed with joy, and inserted among the well-omened particulars of his journal.
He came to see me within two days, and appeared in high spirits. Santillane, cried he, I am come to receive your congratulations. My fortune is made, my friend, though my play is marred. You know what a mistake they made on the first and last night of "The Count of Saldagna;" hissed instead of applauding! You would have thought all the wild beasts of the forest had been let loose, with their ears fortified against the softening power of poetry:
but the more they bellowed, the better I fared, and they have roared me into a provision for life.
There was no knowing what to make of this incident in the drama of our poet's adventures. What is all this, Fabricio? said I: how can theatrical damnation have conjured up such Elysian ecstacy? It is exactly so, answered he: I told you before that Don Bertrand had thrown in some of the circumstances; and he was fully convinced that there was no defect but in the taste of the spectators. They might he very good judges; but, if they were, he was no judge at all! Nunez! said he this morning;
Victrix causa Diis placuit, sed victa Catoni.
[Members of parliament, and the ladies, will probably expect a translation of these hard words; but I refer the former to their dictionaries, to which they bade a long farewell on leaving Eton or Harrow; and the latter to an extended paraphrase of five acts in the tragedy of Cato. Those of the softer sex who may think the Stoic philosophy rude and uncouth, will feel their nerves vibrate in unison with the love scenes. -- Translator.]
Your piece has been ill-received by the public; but against that you may place my entire approbation; and thus you ought to set your heart at rest. By way of something to balance the bad taste of the age, I shall settle an annuity of two thousand crowns on you: go to my solicitor, and let him draw the deed. We have been about it: the treasurer has signed and sealed; my first quarter is paid in advance . . . .
I wished Fabricio joy on the unhappy fate of "The Count of Saldagna," and probably most authors would have envied his failure more than all the success that ever succeeded. You are in the right, continued he, to prefer my fortune to my fame. What a lucky peal of disapprobation in double choir! If the public had chosen to ring the changes on my merits rather than my misdeeds, what would they have done for my pocket? A mere paltry nothing. The common pay of the theatre might have kept me from starving; but the wind of popular malice has blown me a comfortable pension, engrossed on safe and legal parchment.