CH. II. -- The astonishment of Gil Blas at meeting Captain Rolando in Madrid, and that robber's curious narrative.

 

DON Bernard de Castil Blazo, having attended the corregidor to the street, returned in a hurry to fasten his strong box, and all the doors which secured it. We then went out, both of us well satisfied, he at having acquired a friend in power, and myself at finding my six rials a day secured to me. The desire of relating this adventure to Melendez made me bend my steps towards his house; but, near my journey's end, whom should I meet but Captain Rolando! My surprise was extreme, and I could not help quaking at the sight of him. He recollected me at once, accosted me gravely, and, still keeping up his tone of superiority, ordered me to follow him. I tremblingly obeyed, saying inwardly: Alas! he means, doubtless, to make me pay my debts! Whither will he lead me? There may, perhaps, be some subterraneous retreat in this city. Plague take it! If I thought so, I would soon show him I have not got the gout. I walked, therefore, behind him carefully looking out where he might stop, with the pious design of putting my best leg foremost, if there was anything in the shape of a trap-door.

Rolando soon dispersed my alarms. He went into a well-frequented tavern; I followed him. He called for the best wine, and ordered dinner. While it was getting ready, we went into a private room, where the captain addressed me as follows: You may well be astonished, Gil Blas, to renew your acquaintance with your old commander; and you will be still more so, when you have heard my tale. The day I left you in the cave, and went with my troop to Mansilla, for the purpose of selling the mules and horses we had taken the evening before, we met the son of the corregidor of Leon, attended by four men on horseback well armed, following his carriage. Two of his people we made to bite the dust, and the other two ran away. On this the coachman, alarmed for his master, cried out to us in a tone of supplication -- Alas! my dear gentlemen, in God's name, do not kill the only son of his worship the corregidor of Leon. These words were far from softening my comrades; on the contrary, their fury knew no bounds. Good folks, said one of them, let not the son of a mortal enemy to men like us escape our vengeance. How many ornaments of our profession has his father cut off in their prime! Let us repay his cruelty with interest, and sacrifice this victim to their offended ghosts. The whole troop applauded the fineness of this feeling, and my lieutenant himself was preparing to act as high priest at this unhallowed altar, when I interdicted the rites. Stop, said I; why shed blood without occasion? Let us rest contented with the youth's purse. As he makes no resistance, it would be against the laws of war to cut his throat. Besides, he is not answerable for his father's misdeeds; nay, his father only does his duty in condemning us to death, as we do ours in rifling travellers.

Thus did I plead for the corregidor's son, and my intercession was not unavailing. We only took every farthing of his money, and carried off with us the horses of the two men whom we had slain. These we sold with the rest at Mansilla. Thence we returned to the cavern, where we arrived the following morning a little before daybreak. We were not a little surprised to find the trap open, and still more so, when we found Leonarda handcuffed in the kitchen. She unravelled the mystery in two words. We wondered how you could have overreached us; no one could have thought you capable of serving us such a trick, and we forgave the effect for the merit of the invention. As soon as we had released our kitchen wench, I gave orders for a good luncheon. In the mean time we went to look after our horses in the stable, where the old negro, who had been left to himself for four-and-twenty hours, was at the last gasp. We did all we could for his relief, but he was too far gone; indeed so much reduced, that, in spite of our endeavours, we left the poor devil on the threshold of another world. It was very sad; but it did not spoil our appetites, and, after an abundant breakfast, we retired to our chambers, and slept away the whole day. On our awaking, Leonarda apprized us that Domingo had paid the debt of nature. We carried him to the charnel-house where you may recollect to have lodged, and there performed his obsequies, just as if he had been one of our own order.

Five or six days afterwards, it fell out that one morning, on a sally, we encountered three companies of the Holy Brotherhood, on the outskirts of the wood. They seemed waiting to attack us. We perceived but one troop at first. These we despised, though superior in number to our party, and rushed forward to the onset. But while we were at loggerheads with the first, the two others in ambuscade came thundering down upon us; so that our valour was of no use. There was no withstanding such a host of enemies. Our lieutenant and two of our gang gave up the ghost on this occasion. As for the two others and myself, we were so closely pressed and hemmed in, as to be taken prisoners: and, while two detachments convoyed us to Leon, the third went to destroy our retreat. How it was discovered, I will briefly tell you. A peasant of Luceno, crossing the forest on his way home, by chance espied the trap-door of our subterraneous residence, which a certain young runaway had not shut down after him, for it was precisely the day when you took yourself off with the lady. He had a violent suspicion of its being our abode, without having the courage to go in. It was enough to mark the adjacent parts, by lightly peeling with his knife bark from the nearest trees, and so on, from distance to distance, till he was quite out of the wood. He then betook himself to Leon, with this grand discovery for the corregidor, who was so much the better pleased, as his son had been robbed by our gang. This magistrate collected together three companies to lay hold of us, and the peasant showed them the way.

My arrival in the town of Leon was as good as that of a wild beast to the inhabitants. Even though I had been a Portuguese general made prisoner of war, the people could not have been more anxious to see me. There he goes, was the cry; that is he, the famous captain, the terror of these parts. It would serve him right to tear him piecemeal with pincers, and make his comrades join in the chorus. To the corregidor, was the universal cry; and his worship began insulting me. So, so! said he, scoundrel as you are, the powers of justice, worn to a thread with your past irregularities, hand over the task of punishment to me as their delegate. Sir, answered I, great as my crimes may have been, at least the death of your only son is not to be laid at my door. His life was saved by me; you owe me some acknowledgment on that score. Oh! wretch, exclaimed he, there are no measures to be kept with people of your description. And though it were my wish to save you, my sacred office would not allow me to indulge my feelings. Having spoken to this effect, he committed us to a dungeon, where my companions had no time to lament their hard fate. They got out of confinement, at the end of three days, to expatiate with tragic energy at the place of execution. For my part, I took up my quarters in limbo for three complete weeks. My punishment seemingly was deferred only to render it more terrible; and I was looking out for some refinement on the ordinary course of criminal justice, when the corregidor, having summoned me before him, said: Give ear to your sentence. You are free. Had it not been for you, my only son would have been assassinated on the highway. As a father, my gratitude was due for this service; but not being competent to acquit you in my capacity of a magistrate, I have written up to court in your favour; have solicited your pardon, and have obtained it. Go, then, whithersoever it may seem good to you. But take my advice; profit by this lucky escape. Look to your paths, and give up the trade of a highwayman for good and all.

I was deeply impressed by this advice, and took my departure for Madrid, in the firm determination of mending my ways, and living quietly in that city. There I found my father and mother dead, and what they left behind them in the hands of an old kinsman, who administered duly and truly, as all trustees of course do. I saved three thousand ducats out of the fire; scarcely a quarter of what I was entitled to. But where was the remedy? There was no standing to the quirks and evasions of the law. Just to be doing something, I have purchased an alguazil's place. My colleagues would have set their faces against my admission, for the honour of the cloth, had they known my history. Luckily they did not, or at least affected not to know it, which was just as good as the reality; for, in that illustrious body, it is the bounden duty and interest of every member to wear a mask. The pot cannot call the kettle hard names, thank heaven. The devil would have no great catch in the best of us. And yet, my friend, I could willingly unbosom myself to you without disguise. My present occupation is much against the grain; it requires too circumspect and too mysterious a conduct; there is nothing to be done but by underhand dealings, gravity, and cunning. Oh! for my first trade! The new one is safer, to be sure; but there is more fun in the other, and liberty is my motto. I feel disposed to get rid of my office, and to set out some sunshiny morning for the mountains at the source of the Tagus. I know of a retreat thereabouts, inhabited by a numerous gang, composed chiefly of Catalonians; when I have said that, I need say no more. If you will go along with me, we will swell the number of those heroes. I shall be second in command. To make your footing respectable at once, I will swear that you have fought ten times by my side. Your valour shall mount to the very skies. I will tell more good of you than a commander-in-chief of a favourite officer. I will not say a word about the run-away trick, that would render you suspected of turning nose, therefore mum is the word. What say you to it? Are you ready to set off? I am impatient to know your mind.

Every one to his own fancy, said I then to Rolando, you were born for bold exploits, and your friend for a serene and quiet life. I understand you, interrupted he; the lady whom love induced you to carry off still preserves her influence over your heart, and you doubtless lead with her that serene life of which you are enamoured. Own the truth, master Gil Blas, she is become a thing of your own, and you are both living on the pistoles carried off from the subterraneous retreat. I told him he was mistaken; and, to set him right, related the lady's adventures and my own while we sat at dinner. When our meal was finished he led back to the subject of the Catalonians, and attempted once more to engage me in his project. But finding me inflexible, he looked at me with a terrific frown, and said seriously -- Since you are dastard enough to prefer your servile condition to the honour of enlisting in a troop of brave fellows, I turn you adrift to your own grovelling inclinations. But mark me well, a lapse may be fatal. Forget our meeting of to-day, and never prate about me to any living soul; for if I catch you bandying about my name in your idle talk . . . . you know my ways, I need say no more. With these words he called for the landlord, paid the reckoning, and we rose from table to go away.

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