CH. I. -- The tender attachment between Gil Blas and Dame Lorenza Sephora.
AWAY went I to Xelva with three thousand ducats under my charge, as an equivalent to Samuel Simon for the amount of his loss. I will have the honesty to own, that my fingers itched as I jogged along, to transfer these funds to my own account, and begin my stewardship in character, since everything in this life depends upon setting out well. There was no risk in preferring instinct to principle: because it was only to ride about the country for five or six days, and come home upon a brisk trot as if I had done my business and made the best of my way. Don Alphonso and his father would never have believed me capable of a breach of trust. Yet, strange to tell, I was proof against so tempting a suggestion: it would scarcely be too much to say, that honour, not the fear of being found out, was the spring of so praiseworthy a decision; and as times go, that is saying a great deal for a lad, whose conscience had been pretty well seasoned by keeping company with a succession of scoundrels. Many people who have not that excuse, but frequent worshipful society, will wonder how such squeamishness should have prevailed over my good sense: treasurers of charities in particular; persons who have the wills of relations in their custody, and do not exactly like the contents; in short, all those whose characters stand higher than their principles, will find food for reflection in my overstrained scrupulosity.
After having made restitution to the merchant, who little thought ever to have seen one farthing of his property again, I returned to the castle of Lena. The Count de Polan had taken his departure, and was far on his journey to Toledo with Julia and Don Ferdinand. I found my new master more wrapped up than ever in Seraphina; his Seraphina equally wrapped up in my master, and Don Caesar just as much wrapped up as either in the contemplation of the happy couple. My object was to gain the goodwill of this affectionate father, and I succeeded to my wish. The whole house was placed implicitly under my superintendence -- nothing was done without my special direction; the tenants paid their rents into my hands; the disbursements of the family were all under my revision; and the subordinate situations in the household were at my disposal without appeal; and yet the power of tyrannizing did not give me the inclination, as it has always hitherto done to my equals and superiors. I neither turned away the male servants, because I did not like the cut of their beards, nor the female ones because they happened not to like the cut of mine. If they made up to Don Caesar or his son at once, without currying my favour as the channel of all good graces, far from taking umbrage at them on that account, I spoke out officiously in their behalf. In other respects, too, the marks of confidence my two masters were incessantly lavishing on me inspired me with a substantial zeal for their service. Their interest was my real object: there was no slight of hand in my ministry; I was such a caterer for the general good, as you rarely meet with in private families or in political societies.
While I was hugging myself on the well-earned prosperity of my condition, love, jealous of my dealings with fortune, was bent on sharing my gratitude by the addition of a higher zest, he planted, watered, and ripened in the heart of Dame Lorenza Sephora, Seraphina's confidential woman, an abundant crop of liking for the happy steward. My Helen, not to sink the fidelity of the historian in the vanity of the man, could not be many months short of her fiftieth year. But for all that, a look of wholesomeness, a face none of the ugliest, and two good-looking eyes of which she knew the efficient use, might make her still pass for a decent bit of amusement in a summer evening. I could only just have been thankful for a little more relief to her complexion, since it was precisely the colour of chalk; but that I attributed to maiden concealments, which had eat away all the damask of her cheek.
The lady ogled me for a long time, with ogles that savoured more of passion than of chastity; but instead of communing in the language of the eyes, I made pretence at first not to be sensible of my own happiness. Thus did my gallantry appear as if arrayed in its first blushes; a circumstance which was rather tempting than repulsive to her feelings. Taking it into her head, therefore, that there was no standing upon dumb eloquence with a young man who looked more like a novice than he was, at our very first interview she declared her sentiments in broad, unequivocal terms, that I might have no plea for misinterpretation. She played her part like an old stager: affected to be overwhelmed with confusion while she was speaking to me; and after having said all she wanted to say in a good audible voice, put her hand before her face, to hide the shame which was not there, and make me believe that she was incommoded by the delicacy of her own feelings. There was no standing such an attack; and though vanity had a larger share in my surrender than the tender passion, I did not receive her overtures ungraciously. Nay, more, I presumed to overlook decorum in my vivacity, and acted the impatient lover so naturally as to call down a modest rebuke upon my freedoms. Lorenza chid my fondness, but with so much fondness in her chidings, that while she prescribed to me the coldness of an anchorite, it was very evident she would have been miserably disappointed if I had taken her prescription. I should have pressed the affair at once to the natural termination of all such affairs, if the lovely object of my ardent wishes had not been afraid of giving me a left-handed opinion of her virtue, by abandoning the works before the siege was regularly formed. This being so, we parted, but with a promise to meet again: Sephora in the full persuasion that her reluctant resistance would stamp her for a vestal in my esteem, and myself full of the sweet hope that the torments of Tantalus would soon be succeeded by an elysium of enjoyment.
My affairs were in this happy train, when one of Don Caesar's under servants brought me such a piece of news, as gave an ague to my raptures. This lad was one of those inquisitive inmates who apply either an ear or an eye to every keyhole in a house. As he paid his court constantly to me, and served up some fresh piece of scandal every day, he came to tell me one morning that he had made a pleasant discovery; and that he had no objection to letting me into the fun, on condition that I would not blab: because Dame Lorenza Sephora was the theme of the joke, and he was afraid of becoming obnoxious to her resentment and revenge. I was too much interested in coming at the story he had to tell, not to swear myself into discretion through thick and thin; but it was necessary that my motive should seem curiosity and not personal concern, so that I asked him, with an air of as much indifference as I could put on, what was this mighty discovery about which he made such a piece of work. Lorenza, whispered he, smuggles the surgeon of the village every evening into her apartment: he is a tight vessel, well armed and manned; and the pirate generally stays pretty long upon his cruise. I do not mean to say, added he, with supercilious candour but that all this may be perfectly innocent on both sides, but you cannot help admitting, that where a young man does insinuate himself slily into a girl's bedchamber he takes better care of his own pleasure than of her reputation.
Though this tale gave me as much uneasiness as if I had been verily and romantically in love, I had too much sense to let him know it; but so far stifled my feelings as to laugh heartily at a story which struck at the very life of all my hopes. But when no witnesses were by, I made myself full amends for having gulped down my rising indignation. I blustered and stormed; muttered blessings on them the wrong way, and swore outright: but all this without coming nearer to a decision on my own conduct. At one time, holding Lorenza in utter contempt, it was my good pleasure to give her up altogether, without condescending so far as to come to any explanation with the coquette. At an other time, laying it down as a principle, that my honour was concerned in making the surgeon an example to all intriguers, I spirited up my courage to call him out. Thus dangerous valour prevailed over safe indifference. At the approach of evening I placed myself in ambuscade; and sure enough the gentleman did slink into the temple of my Vesta, with a fear of being found out that spoke rather unfavourably for the purity of his designs. Nothing short of this could have kept my rage alive against the chilliness of the night air. I immediately quitted the precincts of the castle, and posted myself on the high road, where the gay deceiver was sure to be intercepted on his return. I waited for him with my fighting spirits on the full boil: my impatience increased with the lapse of time, till Mars and Bellona seemed to inhabit my frame, and enlarge it beyond human dimensions. At length my antagonist came in sight. I took a few strides, such as bully Mars or Bellona might have taken; but I do not know how the devil it came to pass, my courage went further off as my body came nearer; my frame was contracted within somewhat less than its human dimensions, and my heart felt exactly like the heart of a coward. The hearts of Homer's heroes felt exactly the same, when the dastardly dogs were not backed by a supernatural drawcansir! In short, I was just as much out of my element as ever Paris was, when he pitted himself against Menelaus in single combat. I began taking measure of this operator in love, war, and anatomy. He appeared to be large limbed and well knit, with a sword by his side of a most abominable length. All this made me consider, that the better part of valour is discretion: nevertheless, whether from the superiority of mind over the nervous system in a case of honour, or from whatever other cause, though the danger grew bigger as the distance diminished, and in spite of nature, which pleaded obstinately that honour is a mere scutcheon, and can neither set a leg nor take away the grief of a wound, I mustered up boldness enough to march forward towards the surgeon sword in hand.
My proceeding seemed to him to be of the drollest. What is the matter, Signor Gil Blas? exclaimed he. Why all this fire and fury? You are in a bantering mood, to all appearance. No, good master shaver, answered I, no such thing; there never was anything more serious since Cain killed Abel. I am determined to try the experiment, whether as little preparation serves your turn in the field of battle as in a lady's chamber. Hope not that you will be suffered to possess without a rival that heaven of bliss in which you have been indulging but this moment at the castle. By all the martyrdoms we phlebotomizers have ever suffered or inflicted! replied the surgeon, setting up a shout of laughter, this is a most whimsical adventure. As heaven is my judge! appearances are very little to be trusted. At this put off, fancying that he had no keener stomach for cold iron than myself, I got to be I ten times more over bearing. Teach your parrot to speak better Spanish, my friend, interrupted I; do you think we do not know a hawk from a hernshaw? Imagine not that the simple denial of the fact will settle the business. I see plainly, replied he, that I shall be obliged to speak out, or some mischief must happen either to you or me. I shall therefore disclose a secret to you; though men in our profession cannot be too much on the reserve. If Dame Lorenza sends for me into her apartment under suspicious circumstances, it is only to conceal from the servants the knowledge of her malady. She has an incurable ulcer in her back, which I come every evening to dress. This is the real occasion of those visits which disturb your peace. Henceforward, rest assured that you have her all to yourself. But if you are not satisfied with this expectation, and are absolutely bent on a fencing match, you have only to say so; I am not a man to turn my back upon a game at sword play. With these words in his mouth he drew his long rapier, which made my heart jump into my throat, and stood upon his guard. It is enough, said I, putting my sword up again in its scabbard, I am not a wild beast, to turn a deaf ear to reason: after what you have told me, there is no cause of enmity between us. Let us shake hands. At this proposal, by which he found out that I was not such a devil of a fellow as he had taken me for, he returned his weapon with a laugh, met my advances to be reconciled, and we parted the best friends in the world.
From that time forward Sephora never came into my thoughts but with the most disgusting associations. I shunned all the opportunities she gave me of entertaining her in private, and this with so obvious a study, almost bordering on rudeness, that she could not but notice it. Astonished at so sudden a reverse, she was dying to know the cause, and at length, finding the means of pinning me down to a tête-à-tête, Good Mr Steward, said she, tell me, if so please you, why you avoid the very sight of me! It is true that I made the first advances; but then you fed the consuming fire. Recall to memory, if it is not too great a favour, the private interview we had together. Then you were a magazine of combustibles, now you are as frozen as the north sea. What is the meaning of all this? The question was not a little difficult of solution, for a man unaccustomed to the violence of amorous interrogatories. The consequence was, that it puzzled me most confoundedly. I do not precisely recollect the identical lie I told the lady, but I recollect perfectly that nothing but the truth could have affronted her more highly. Sephora, though by her mincing air and modest outside one might have taken her for a lamb, was a tigress when the savage was roused in her nature. I did think, said she, darting a glance at me full of malice and hideousness, I did think to have conferred such honour as was never conferred before, on a little scoundrel like you, by betraying sentiments which the first nobility in the country would make it their boast to excite. Fitly indeed am I punished for having preposterously lowered myself to the level of a dirty, snivelling adventurer.
That was pretty well; but she did not stop there: I should have come off too cheaply on such terms. Her fury taking a long lease of her tongue, that brawling instrument of discord rung a bob-major of invective, each strain more clamorous and confounding than the former. It certainly was my duty to have received it all with cool indifference, and to have considered candidly that in triumphing over female reserve, and then not taking possession of the conquest, I had committed that sin against the sex, which would have transformed the most feminine of them into a Sephora. But I was too irritable to bear abuse, at which a man of sense in my place would only have laughed; and my patience was at length exhausted. Madam, said I, let us not rake into each other's personal misfortunes, If the first nobility in the country had only looked at your back, they would have forgotten all your other charms, and have boasted but little of the sentiments they had excited you to betray. I had no sooner laid in this home stroke, then the enraged duenna visited me with the hardest box on the ear that ever yet proceeded from the delicate fingers of a woman scorned. Such favours might pall on repetition; so I did not wait for a second, but took shelter in the nimbleness of my legs from the clatter of castigation she was going to shower down on me.
I returned thanks to the protecting powers for having brought me clear off from this unequal encounter, and fancied that I had nothing further to apprehend, since the lady had taken corporal vengeance. It was likely, too, that she would be wise and hold her tongue, for the honour of her own back: and, in point of fact, a full fortnight had elapsed without my hearing a word upon the subject The very tingling in my own cheek began to abate, when I was told that Sephora was taken ill. With that forgiveness of injuries so natural to me, I was sincerely afflicted at the news. I really felt for the poor lady. I concluded that, unable to contend with a passion so ill repaid, that hapless victim of her own tenderness was giving up the ghost. It was with exquisite pain that I turned this subject in my thoughts. I was the cruel cause that her heart was breaking; and my pity at least was the duenna's, though love is too wayward to be controlled by advice. But I was miserably mistaken in her nature. Her tenderness had all curdled into acrimonious hatred; and at that very moment was she plotting to be my bane.
One morning while I was with Don Alphonso, that amiable young master of mine was absent, moody, and out of spirits. I inquired respectfully what was the matter. I am vexed to the soul, said he, to find Seraphina weak, unjust, ungrateful. You are not a little surprised at this, added he, remarking the expression of astonishment with which I heard him; yet nothing is more strictly and lamentably true. I know not what reason you have given Dame Lorenza to be at variance with you; but true it is, you are become so unbearably hateful to her, that if you do not get out of this castle as soon as possible, her death, she says, must be the sure consequence. You cannot but suppose that Seraphina, who knows your value, used all her influence at first against a prejudice to which she could not administer without injustice and ingratitude. But though the best of women, she is still a woman. Sephora brought her up, and she loves her like a mother. Should her old nurse die shortly, she would fancy she had her death to answer for, had she refused herself to any of her whims. For my own part, with all my affection towards Seraphina, and it is none of the weakest, I will never be guilty of so mean a compliance as to side with her on this question. Perish our duennas, perish the whole system of our Spanish vigilance! but never let me consent to the banishment of a young man whom I look upon rather as a brother than a servant!
When Don Alphonso had thus expressed his sentiments, I said to him: My good sir, I am born to be the mere whipping-top of fortune. It had been my hope that she would leave off persecuting me when under your roof, where everything held out to me happy days and an unruffled life. Now, the part for honour to take is to tear myself away, whatever hankering I may feel after my continuance. No, no, exclaimed the generous son of Don Caesar. Leave me to bring Seraphina to a proper view of things. It shall never be said that you are sacrificed to the caprices of a duenna, who, on every occasion, has but too much influence over the family. All you will get by it, sir, replied I, will only be to put Seraphina in an ill humour by opposing her wishes. I had much rather withdraw than run the risk, by a longer abode here, of sowing division between a married pair, who are a model of conjugal felicity. Such a consequence of my unhappy quarrel would make me miserable for the remainder of my days.
Don Alphonso absolutely forbade me to take any hasty step; and I found him so determined in the intention of standing by me, that Lorenza must infallibly have been thrown into the background, if I had chosen to have stood an election against her. There were moments when, exasperated against the duenna, I was tempted to keep no measures with her; but when I came to consider that to unravel this surgical mystery would be to plunge a dagger into the heart of a poor creature, whose curse had been my fastidious prejudice against an ulcerated back, and whom a physical and mental misfortune were conjointly handing down to the grave; I lost all feeling but that of compassion towards her. It was evident, since I was so portentous a phenomenon, that it was my imperious duty to re-establish the tranquillity of the castle by my absence; and that duty I performed the next morning before daybreak, without taking any leave of my two masters, for fear they should oppose my departure from a misplaced partiality towards me. My only notice was to leave behind in my chamber a memorial, containing an exact account of my receipts and disbursements during the time of my stewardship.