CH. XI. -- The old hermit turns out an extraordinary genius, and Gil Blas finds himself among his former acquaintance.

 

WHEN Don Alphonso had concluded the melancholy recital of his misfortunes, the old hermit said to him -- My son, you have been excessively rash in tarrying so long at Toledo. I consider in a very different light from that you affect to place it in, what you have told me of your story; and your love for Seraphina seems to me to be sheer madness. Take my word for it, you will do well to cancel that young lady from your remembrance; she never can be of your communion. Retreat like a skilful general, when you cannot act with effect on the offensive; and pursue your fortune on another field, where success may smile on your endeavours. You will be terribly out of luck to kill the brother of the next young lady who may chance to succeed this only possible object of your affection.

He was going to add many other inducements to resignation, in such a case as Don Alphonso's, when we saw another hermit enter our retreat, with a well-stuffed wallet slung across his shoulders. He was on his return, with the charitable contributions of all the good folks in the town of Cuença; and the gathering did credit to the religion of the age. He looked younger than his companion, in spite of his thick, foxy beard. Welcome home, brother Anthony, said the elder of the two recluses; what news do you bring us from town? Bad enough, answered the carroty friar, putting into his hands a paper, folded in the form of a letter; this little instrument will inform you. The hoary sage opened it, and after reading on with an increased attention, as the contents seemed to grow more interesting, exclaimed: Heaven's will be done! Since the combustion is anticipated, we have only to fall in with the humour of our fate. Let us change our dialect, Signor Don Alphonso! pursued he, addressing his discourse to my young companion: you behold in me a man, like yourself; who has been a broad mark for the wantonness of fortune to take aim at. Word is sent me from Cuença, a town at the distance of a league hence, that some backbiter has been blackening my fair fame in the esteem of justice; who is coming with her hue and cry to disturb the repose of these rural scenes, and to lay her paw upon my person. But an old fox is too cunning to be caught in a trap. This is not the first time that I have cut and run before the bloodhounds of the law. But, thanks to myself for having my wits about me, I have always ended the chase in a whole skin, and held myself in readiness for another. It is now time to assume another form; for, whether you like me best in my old skin or my new, I cast my hermit's decrepit slough, to bask in the sunshine of youth and vigour.

To suit the action to the word, he threw off the incumbrance of his ecclesiastical petticoat, and stood forth to view in a doublet of black serge with slashed sleeves. Then off went his cap, and snap went a string, which supported the hoary honours of a beard, and our anchorite was at once transformed to a brawny ruffian of eight-and-twenty or thirty. Brother Anthony, following a good example, discarded the outward show of religion, treated his fiery beard as the snowy one had been handled just before, and pulled out of an old worm-eaten trunk a sorry rag of a cassock, with which he invested his person. But what words can express my surprise, when Signor Don Raphael presented himself to my view, like a phoenix from the ashes of the old bead-counter! To complete the trick of the pantomime, brother Anthony was turned into my faithful vassal and trusty squire, Ambrose de Lamela. Here are miracles! exclaimed I in a quandary; as far as I can perceive, we are all hail fellow well met! You never were more lucky in your life, Signor Gil Blas, said Don Raphael, with a brazen-faced good humour: you have fallen among old friends when you least expected it. It must be owned you have a crow to pluck with us; but let the past be buried in oblivion, and thank heaven, here we are together again. Ambrose and I will serve under your banner; and let me tell you, you will have subalterns of no contemptible prowess. You may object to our morals; but they are better in the main than many a hypocrite's pretensions. We never assassinate, and rarely maltreat: and that in pure self-defence. The only liberty we take with society is to live at free quarters: and though robbery may be considered as containing some little spice of injustice, the necessity we labour under of committing it restores its equilibrium to the scale. Even join your fortune with ours: you will lead a life of hazard, but of variety. Our predatory peregrinations have every pastoral beauty except innocence, and the want of that is more than counterpoised by subtlety and stratagem. Not but, with all our forecast, a certain mechanical concatenation of second causes sometimes frustrates our best-concerted projects, and drags our philosophy through the mire. But a ducking now and then only makes us swim the better. The seasons must all be taken in their turns; the blanks as well as the prizes must be drawn in the cheating lottery of life.

Courteous stranger, pursued the pretended hermit, speaking to Don Alphonso, we extend the proposal of partnership to you, and it may be a question whether you will better yourself by rejecting it, in the lamentable condition of your affairs; for, to say nothing of the chance-medley for which you are at hide and seek, your fortune is probably a little out at elbows. Most lamentably so, said Don Alphonso; and hence, since the truth must out, are my forebodings more dark than even my present evils. That is the very thing! replied Don Raphael. You were sent by our better genius to join the party. You will find no such good berth in the honest part of the world. Your wants will all be supplied, and you may laugh at the vigilance of your pursuers. There is not a corner in all Spain which we have not ferreted out; those who are always on the scamper see a great deal of the country. We are perfect connoisseurs in landscape, and affect Salvator Rosa's rugged scenery. There we graze in peace and freedom, secure from the brutality of justice. Don Alphonso expressed himself very much obliged to them for their kind invitation; and finding neither money in his purse, nor contrivance to procure it in his pericranium, made up his mind at once not to stand upon punctilio with morality. I too was led into a looser course than agreed with my rigid principles, by a growing friendship for this young man, whom I could not find in my heart to abandon in so perilous an enterprise.

We all four agreed to set off in a body, and never to part company. The question was put whether we should sound a retreat on the instant, or first give a peremptory summons to a flagon of excellent wine, which brother Anthony had invested by regular approaches at Cuença the day before; but Raphael, a more experienced general than any of us, represented that the first thing to be done was to render our own camp impregnable, for which purpose he proposed that we should march all night, to gain a very thick wood between Villardesa and Almodabar, where we should halt, as in a friendly country, and recruit after the fatigues of the campaign. These general orders were approved of in council. Our lay hermits then went about packing up their baggage and provisions, which were swung in two bundles across the back of Don Alphonso's horse. We were not long in our preparations, after which we sheered off from the hermitage, leaving a rich booty to legal rapine in the saintly paraphernalia of the two hermits; including a white beard and a red one, two rickety bedsteads, a table without a leg, a chest without a bottom, two chairs without any seats, and an unmutilated image of St Pacomo.

Our march was continued the whole night, and we began to chafe and feel other inconveniences, when at daybreak we hailed the wood where our toils were to end. Sailors after a long voyage work the ship with double alacrity at sight of their native land. So it was with us, we pushed forward and got to our journey's end by sunrise. Dashing into the thickest of the wood, we pitched upon a retired and pleasant spot, where the turf was circled in by tall and branching oaks, whose gigantic limbs, interwoven over our heads, formed a natural vault, not to be penetrated even by noon-day heat. We took the bridle off the horse to let him feed after he was unloaded. Then down we sat, pulling out of brother Anthony's wallet some large pieces of bread and good substantial slices of roast meat, at which we began pegging with all possible pertinacity. Nevertheless, let our appetites be as obstinate as they might, we every now and then suspended the fray to spar a little with the flagon, which returned our blows till it made us reel again.

About the end of the conflict, Don Raphael said to Don Alphonso -- My brave comrade, after the confidence you have reposed in me, it is but fair that in my turn I should recount the history of my life to you with the same sincerity. You will do me a great favour, answered the young man; and an equal one to me, chimed in I. My curiosity is all alive to know your adventures, for doubtless they must afford much matter of useful speculation. You may rest assured of that, replied Don Raphael; and I mean to leave behind me a history of my own times. The composition shall be the amusement of my old age, for I am as yet in the prime of life, and mean to furnish in propriâ personâ many new hints for my commonplace-book. But we are all weary, let us recruit with some hours of sleep. While we three lie down, Ambrose shall keep watch for fear of a surprise, and shall then take a nap in his turn. For though, to all appearance, we are here in perfect safety, it is always good to keep a sentry at the out-posts. After this precaution he stretched himself along upon the grass. Don Alphonso did the same. I followed their example, and Lamela performed the office of a scout.

Don Alphonso, so far from getting any rest, was incessantly brooding over his misfortunes, and I could not get a wink of sleep. As for Don Raphael, he snored most sonorously. But he awoke in little more than an hour, when, finding us in a listening mood, he said to Lamela -- My friend Ambrose, you may now yield to the gentle influence of Morpheus. No, no, answered Lamela, my sleepy fit is over; and though I know all the passages of your life by rote, they are so instructive to the practitioners of our art and mystery, that I do not care how often I hear the tale over again. Without further preface, Don Raphael began the narrative of his adventures in these terms.

 

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