CH I. -- Gil Blas sent to Toledo by the minister. The purpose of his journey and its success.
For nearly a month his excellency had been saying to me every day: Santillane, the time is approaching, when I shall call your choicest powers of address into action; but the time that was coming never came. It is a long lane, however, where there is no turning; and his excellency at length spoke to me nearly as follows: They say that there is, in the company of comedians at Toledo, a young actress of much note for her personal and professional fascinations; it is affirmed that she dances and sings like all the muses and graces put together, and that the whole theatre rings with applause at her performance: to these perfections is added matchless and irresistible beauty. Such a star should only shine within the circle of a court. The king has a taste for the stage, for music, and for dancing: nor must he be debarred from the pleasure of seeing and hearing such a prodigy. I have determined on sending you to Toledo, that you may judge for yourself whether she really is so extraordinary an actress: on your feeling of her merit my measures shall be taken; for I have unlimited confidence in your discernment.
I undertook to bring his lordship a good account of this business, and made my arrangements for setting out with one servant, but not in the minister's livery, by way of conducting matters more warily; and that precaution relished well with his excellency. On my arrival at Toledo, I had scarcely alighted at the inn, when the landlord, taking me for some country gentleman, said: Please your honour, you are probably come to be present at the august ceremony of an Auto da Fé to-morrow. I answered in the affirmative, the more completely to mislead him, and keep my own counsel. You will see, replied he, one of the prettiest processions you ever saw in your life: there are said to be more than a hundred prisoners, and ten of them are to be roasted.
In good truth, next morning, before sun-rise, I heard all the bells in the town peal merrily; and the design of their bob-majors was to acquaint the people that the pastime was about to begin. Curious to see what sort of a recreation it was, I dressed in a hurry, and posted to the scene of action. All about that quarter, and along the streets where the procession was to pass, were scaffolds, on one of which I purchased a standing. The Dominicans walked first, preceded by the banner of the Inquisition. These Christian fathers were immediately followed by the hapless victims of the holy office, selected for this day's burnt-offering. These devoted wretches walked one by one with their head and feet bare, each of them with a taper in his hand, and a fiery, not baptismal godfather by his side. Some had large yellow scapularies, worked with crosses of St Andrew, in red; others wore sugar-loaf caps of paper, illustrated with flames, and diabolical figures of all sorts by way of emblem.
As I looked narrowly at these objects of religious gaze, with a compassion in my heart which might have been construed criminal, had it run over from my eyes, I fancied that the reverend Father Hilary and his companion brother Ambrose were among those who figured in the sugar-loaf caps. They passed too near for me to be deceived. What do I see? thought I inwardly: heaven, wearied out with the wicked lives of these two scoundrels, has given them up to the justice of the Inquisition! My whole frame trembled at the thought, and my spirits were scarcely equal to support me from fainting. My connection with these knaves, the adventure at Xelva, all our pranks in partnership rushed upon my memory, and I did not know how sufficiently to thank God for having preserved me from St Andrew's crosses and the painted devils on the paper caps.
When the ceremony was over, I returned to the inn, with my heart sickening at the dreadful sight; but painful impressions soon wear away, and I thought only of my commission and its due accomplishment. I waited with impatience for play-time, as the moment and scene of my commencing operations. On the opening of the doors I repaired to the theatre, and took my seat next to a knight of Alcantara. We soon got into chat. Sir, said I, the players here have been represented to me in very favourable terms: may I give credit to general report? The company is not contemptible, replied the knight: they have some first-rate performers; among the rest, the peerless Lucretia, an actress of fourteen, who will astonish you: and she plays one of her best parts to-night.
On the drawing up of the curtain, two actresses came on, with every advantage of dress and stage effect: but neither of them could possibly be the object of my search. At length Lucretia made her appearance at the back scene, and walked forwards amidst a thunder of applause. Ah! this is she, indeed! thought I! and a delicate specimen of loveliness, as I am a sinner! In her very first speech she proved herself a child of nature, with energy and conception far above her years; and the approbation of a provincial audience was confirmed by my metropolitan judgment. The knight was happy to find I liked her, and assured me that if I had heard her sing, my ears might have rejoiced to the sorrow of my heart. Her dancing, too, he represented as not less formidable to the free will of lordly man. I inquired what youth, blessed as the immortal gods, had the exquisite happiness of bringing himself to beggary for so sweet a girl. She is under no avowed protection, said he; and scandal has not coupled her name with private licence; but Lucretia must take care of herself, for she is under the wing of her aunt Estella; and there is not an actress in the company so warmly fledged for hatching the tender passions into life.
At the name of Estella, I inquired with some eagerness who she was. One of our best performers, said my informant. She does not play to-night, to our great loss, for her cast is that of abigails, and she humours them to perfection. A little too broad, perhaps, but that is a fault on the right side. From the features of the description, there could be no doubt but this must be Laura; that lady so notorious in these memoirs, whom I left at Grenada.
To make assurance doubly sure, I went behind the scenes after the play. There she was, in the green-room, flirting with some men of fashion, who probably endured the aunt for the sake of the niece. I came up to pay my devotions; but whim, or perhaps revenge for my cutting and running from Grenada, determined her to put on the stranger, and receive my compliments with so discouraging a coldness, as to throw me into some little confusion. Instead of laughing it off, I was fool enough to be angry, and withdrew in a choleric determination to return next day. Laura shall smart for this! said I; her niece shall not appear at court; I will tell the minister that she dances like a she bear, has formed her bravura between the scream of a pea-hen and the cackle of a goose, acts like a puppet, and comprehends like an idiot.
Such was my scheme of revenge, but it proved abortive. Just as I was going out of town, a footboy brought me the following note: "Forget and forgive, and follow the bearer." I obeyed, and found Laura at her dressing-table in very elegant apartments near the theatre.
She rose to welcome me, saying: Signor Gil Blas, you have every reason to be offended at your reception behind the scenes, which was out of character between such old friends, but I really was most abominably disconcerted. Just as you came up, one of our gentlemen had brought me some scandalous stories about my niece, whose honour has always been dearer to me than my own. On coming to myself, I immediately sent my servant to find you out, with the intention of making you amends to-day. You have done so already, my dear Laura, said I, let us therefore talk over old times. You may remember that I left you in a very ticklish predicament, when conscience and the fear of punishment drove me so precipitately from Grenada. How did you get off with your Portuguese lover? Easily enough, answered Laura: do not you know that in those cases men are mere fools, and acquit us women without even calling for our defence?
I faced the Marquis of Marialva out, that you were my very brother, and drew upon my impudence for the support of my credit. Do you not see, said I to my Portuguese dupe, that this is all the contrivance of jealousy and rage? My rival, Narcissa, infuriated at my possession of a heart which she had vainly attempted to gain, has bribed the candle-snuffer to assert that he has seen me as Arsenia's waiting-woman at Madrid. It is an abominable falsehood; the widow of Don Antonio Coello has always been too high in her notions, to be the hanger-on of a theatrical mistress. Besides, what completely disproves the whole allegation, is my brother's precipitate retreat: if he were here, it would be a subject of evidence; but Narcissa must have devised some stratagem to get him out of the way.
These reasons, continued Laura, were not the most convincing in the world, but they did very well for the marquis; and that good, easy nobleman continued his confidence till his return to Portugal. This happened soon after your departure; and Zapata's wife had the pleasure of seeing me lose what she could not win. After this, I stayed some years longer at Grenada, till the company was broken up in consequence of some squabbles, which will take place in mimic as well as in real life: some went to Seville, others to Cordova; and I came to Toledo, where I have been for these ten years with my niece Lucretia, whose performance you must have seen last night
This was too much to be taken gravely. Laura inquired why I laughed. Can that be a question? said I. You have neither brother nor sister, one or other of which is a necessary ingredient in an aunt. Besides, when I calculate in my mind the lapse of time since our last separation, and compare that period with the age of your niece, it is more than possible that your relationship may be in a nearer degree of kin.
I understand you, replied Don Antonio's widow, with something like a moral tinge of red in her cheek; you are an accurate chronologist! There is no garbling facts in defiance of your memory. Well, then! Lucretia is my daughter by the Marquis of Marialva: it was extremely wrong, but I cannot conceal it from you. The confession must indeed be a shock to your modesty, said I, after telling me yourself what pranks you played with the hospital steward at Zamora. I must tell you moreover that Lucretia is an article of so superior a quality as to render you a public benefactor by having thrown her into the market. It were to be wished that the stolen embraces of all your fraternity might be blessed with fruitfulness, if they could secure to themselves a patent for breeding after your sample.
Should any sarcastic reader, comparing this passage with some circumstances related while I was the marquis's secretary, suspect me of being entitled to dispute the honours of paternity with that nobleman, I blush to say, that my claims are entirely out of the question.
I laid open my principal adventures to Laura in my turn, as well as the present state of my affairs. She listened with interest, and said: Friend Santillane, you seem to play a principal part on the stage of the world, and I congratulate you most heartily. Should Lucretia be engaged at Madrid, I flatter myself she will find a powerful protector in Signor de Santillane. Doubt it not, answered I: your daughter may have her engagement whenever you please; I can promise you that, without presuming too much on my interest. I take you at your word, replied Laura, and would set out to-morrow, were I not under articles to this company. An order from court will cut the knot of any articles, rejoined I; and that I take upon myself: you shall have it within a week. It is an act of chivalry to rescue Lucretia from Toledo: such a pretty little actress belongs to the royal court, as parcel of the manor.
Lucretia came into the room just as I was talking of her. The goddess Hebe herself never looked better in her best days: it was nature in the bud, exhaling the sweets of her earliest bloom, but promising a more luxuriant waste of treasure. She was just up; and her natural beauty, without the aid of art, communicated the most rapturous sensations. Come, niece; said her mother, thank the gentleman for all his kindness to us: he is an old friend of mine, who ranks high at court, and undertakes to get us both an engagement at the theatre royal. The little girl seemed to be much pleased, and made me a low curtsey, saying with an enchanting smile: I most humbly thank you for your obliging intention; but, by taking me from a partial audience, are you certain that I shall not be looked down upon by that of Madrid? I may but lose by the exchange. I remember hearing my aunt say, that she has seen players most favourably received in one town, and hissed off the stage in another; this absolutely frightens me; beware therefore of exposing me to the derision of the court, and yourself to its reproaches. Lovely Lucretia, answered I, we have neither of us anything to fear; I am rather apprehensive lest, by the havoc you will make among hearts, you should excite rivalships and kindle discord among the courtiers. My niece's fears, said Laura, are better founded than yours; but I hope they will both prove vain: however feeble may be Lucretia's charms of person, her talents as an actress are at least above mediocrity.
We continued the conversation for some time: and I could gather, from Lucretia's share in it, that she was a girl of superior talents. On taking leave, I assured them that they should immediately receive a summons to Madrid.