CH. VIII. -- Gil Blas goes out with the gang, and performs an exploit on the highway.
IT was past midnight in the month of September, when I issued from the subterraneous abode as one of the fraternity. I was armed, like them, with a carabine, two pistols, a sword, and a bayonet, and was mounted on a very good horse, the property of the gentleman in whose costume I appeared. I had lived so long like a mole under-ground, that the daybreak could not fail of dazzling me: but my eyes got reconciled to it by degrees.
We passed close by Pontferrada, and were determined to lie in ambush behind a small wood skirting the road to Leon. There we were waiting for whatever fortune might please to throw in our way, when we espied a Dominican friar, mounted, contrary to the rubric of those pious fathers, on a shabby mule. God be praised, exclaimed the captain with a sneer, this is a noble beginning for Gil Blas. Let him go and trounce that monk: we will bear witness to his qualifications. The connoisseurs were all of opinion that this commission suited my talents to a hair, and exhorted me to do my best Gentlemen, quoth I, you shall have no reason to complain. I will strip this holy father to his birth-day suit, and give you complete right and title to his mule. No, no, said Rolando, the beast would not be worth its fodder: only bring us our reverend pastor's purse; that is all we require. Hereupon I issued from the wood and pushed up to the man of God, doing penance all the time in my own breast for the sin I was committing. I could have liked to have turned my back upon my fellows at that moment; but most of them had the advantage of better horses than mine: had they seen me making off they would have been at my heels, and would soon have caught me, or perhaps would have fired a volley, for which I was not sufficiently case-hardened. I could not therefore venture on so perilous an alternative; so that claiming acquaintance with the reverend father, I asked to look at his purse, and just put out the end of a pistol. He stopped short to gaze upon me; and, without seeming much frightened, said, My child, you are very young; this is an early apprenticeship to a bad trade. Father, replied I, bad as it is, I wish I had begun it sooner. What! my son, rejoined the good friar, who did not understand the real meaning of what I said, how say you? What blindness! give me leave to place before your eyes the unhappy condition. Come, come, father! interrupted I, with impatience, a truce to your morality, if you please. My business on the high road is not to hear sermons. Money makes my mare to go. Money said he, with a look of surprise; you have a poor opinion of Spanish charity, if you think that people of my stamp have any occasion for such trash upon their travels. Let me undeceive you. We are made welcome wherever we go, and pay for our board and lodgings by our prayers. In short, we carry no cash with us on the road; but draw drafts upon Providence. That is all very well, replied I; yet for fear your drafts should be dishonoured, you take care to keep about you a little supply for present need. But come, father, let us make an end: my comrades in the wood are in a hurry; so your money or your life. At these words, which I pronounced with a determined air, the friar began to think the business grew serious. Since needs must, said he, there is wherewithal to satisfy your craving. A word and a blow is the only rhetoric with you gentlemen. As he said this, be drew a large leathern purse from under his gown, and threw it on the ground. I then told him he might make the best of his way: and he did not wait for a second bidding, but stuck his heels into the mule, which, giving the lie to my opinion, for I thought it on a par with my uncle's, set off at a good round pace. While he was riding for his life, I dismounted. The purse was none of the lightest. I mounted again, and got back to the wood, where those nice. observers were waiting with impatience to congratulate me on my success. I could hardly get my foot out of the stirrup, so eager were they to shake hands with me. Courage, Gil Blas, said Rolando; you have done wonders. I have had my eyes on you during your whole performance, and have watched your countenance. I have no hesitation in predicting that you will become in time a very accomplished highwayman. The lieutenant and the rest chimed in with the prophecy, and assured me that I could not fail of fulfilling it hereafter. I thanked them for the elevated idea they had formed of my talents, and promised to do all in my power not to discredit their penetration.
After they had lavished praises, the effect rather of their candour than of my merit, they took it into their heads to examine the booty I had brought under my convoy. Let us see, said they, let us see how a friar's purse is lined. It should be fat and flourishing, continued one of them, for these good fathers do not mortify the flesh when they travel. The captain untied the purse, opened it, and took out two or three handfuls of little copper coins, an Agnus-Dei here and there, and some scapularies. At sight of so novel a prize, all the privates burst into an immoderate fit of laughter. God be praised! cried the lieutenant, we are very much obliged to Gil Blas: his first attack has produced a supply, very seasonable to our fraternity. One joke brought on another. These rascals, especially the fellow who had retired from the church to our subterraneous hermitage, began to make themselves merry on the subject. They said a thousand good things, such as showed at once the sharpness of their wits and the profligacy of their morals. They were all on the broad grin except myself. It was impossible to be butt and marksman too. They each of them shot their bolt at me, and the captain said: Faith, Gil Blas, I would advise you as a friend not to set your wit a second time against the church: the biter may be bit; for you must live some time longer among us, before you are a match for them.