CH. II -- Gil Blas' alarm on his road to Pegnaflor; his adventures on his arrival in that town; and the character of the men with whom he supped.
HERE I am, then, on the other side of Oviedo, in the road to Pegnaflor, with the world before me, as yet my own master, as well master of a bad mule and forty good ducats, without reckoning on a little supplementary cash purloined from my much-honoured uncle. The first thing I did was to let my mule go as the beast liked, that is to say, very lazily. I dropped the rein, and taking out my ducats, began to count them backwards and forwards in my hat. I was out of my wits for joy, never having seen such a sum of money before, and could not help looking at it and sifting it through my fingers. I had counted it over about the twentieth time, when all at once my mule, with head raised, and ears pricked up, stood stock still in the middle of the high road. I thought, to be sure, something was the matter; looked about for a cause, and perceiving a hat upon the ground, with a rosary of large beads, at the same time heard a lugubrious voice pronounce these words: Pray, honoured master, have pity on a poor maimed soldier! Please to throw a few small pieces into this hat; you shall be rewarded for it in the other world. I looked immediately on the side whence the voice proceeded, and saw, just by a thicket, twenty or thirty paces from me, a sort of a soldier, who had mounted the barrel of a confounded long carbine on two cross sticks, and seemed to be taking aim at me. At a sight which made me tremble for the patrimony of the Church committed to my care, I stopped short, made sure of my ducats, and taking out a little small change, as I rode by the hat, placed to receive the charity of those quiet subjects who had not the courage to refuse it, dropped in my contribution in detail, to convince the soldier how nobly I dealt by him. He was satisfied with my liberality, and gave me a blessing for every kick I gave my mule in my impatience to get out of his way; but the infernal beast, without partaking in the slightest degree of my impatience, went at the old steady pace. A long custom of jogging on fair and softly under my uncle's weight had obliterated every idea of that motion called a gallop.
The prospect of my journey was not much improved by this adventure as a specimen. I considered within myself that I had yet some distance to Salamanca, and might, not improbably, meet with something worse. My uncle seemed to have been very imprudent not to have consigned me to the care of a muleteer. That, to be sure, was what he ought to have done; but his notion was, that by giving me his mule, my journey would be cheaper; and that entered more into his calculation than the dangers in which I might be involved on the road. To retrieve his error, therefore, I resolved, if I had the good luck to arrive safe at Pegnaflor, to offer my mule for sale, and take the opportunity of a muleteer going to Astorga, whence I might get to Salamanca by a similar conveyance. Though I had never been out of Oviedo I was acquainted with the names of the towns through which I was to pass; a species of information I took care to procure before my setting out.
I got safe and sound to Pegnaflor, and stopped at the door of a very decent looking inn. My foot was scarcely out of the stirrup before the landlord was at my side, overwhelming me with public-house civility. He untied my cloakbag with his own hands, swung it across his shoulders, and ushered my Honour into a room, while one of his men led my mule to the stable. This landlord, the most busy prattler of the Asturias, ready to bother you impertinently about his own concerns, and, at the same time, with a sufficient portion of curiosity to worm himself into the knowledge of yours, was not long in telling me that his name was Andrew Corcuelo; that he had seen some service as a sergeant in the army, which he had quitted fifteen months ago, and married a girl of Castropol, who, though a little tawny or so, knew how to make both ends meet as well as the best of them. He told me a thousand things besides which he might just as well have kept private. Thinking himself entitled, after this voluntary confidence, to an equal share of mine, he asked me in a breath, and without further preface, whence I came, whither I was going, and who I was. To all this I felt myself bound to answer, article by article, because, though rather abrupt in asking them, he accompanied each question with so apologetic a bow, beseeching me with so submissive a grimace not to be offended at his curiosity, that I was drawn in to gratify it whether I would or no. Thus by degrees did we get into a long conversation, in the course of which I took occasion to hint that I had some reasons for wishing to get rid of my mule, and travel under convoy of a muleteer. He seemed on the whole to approve of my plan, though he could not prevail with himself to tell me so briefly; for he introduced his remarks by descanting on all the possible and probable mischances to which travellers are liable on the road, not omitting an awkward story now and then. I thought the fellow would never have done. But the conclusion of the argument was, that if I wanted to sell my mule, he knew an honest jockey who would take it off my hands. I begged he would do me the favour to fetch him, which was no sooner said than done.
On his return he introduced the purchaser, with a high encomium on his integrity. We all three went into the yard, and the mule was brought out to show paces before the jockey, who set himself to examine the beast from head to foot. His report was bad enough. To be sure, it would not have been easy to make a good one; but if it had been the pope's mule, and this fellow was to cheapen the bargain, it would have been just the same: nay, to speak with all due reverence, if he had been asked to give an opinion of the pope's great toe, from that disparaging habit of his, he would have pronounced it no better than the toe of any ordinary man. He laid it down, therefore, as a principle, that the mule had all the defects a mule could have: appealing to the landlord for a confirmation of his judgment, who, doubtless, had reasons of his own for not controverting his friend's assertion. Well! says the jockey, with an air of in difference, What price have you the conscience to ask for this devil of an animal? After such a panegyric, and master Corcuelo's certificate, whom I was fool enough to take for a fair-dealing man and a good judge of horse-flesh, they might have had the mule for nothing. I therefore told the dealer that I threw myself on his mercy: he must fix his own sum, and I should expect no more. On this he began to affect the gentleman, and answered that I had found out his weak side when I left it to his honour. He was right enough in that! his honour was his weak side! for instead of bidding up to my uncle's estimate of ten or twelve pistoles, the rascal had the impudence to offer three ducats, which I accepted with as light a heart as if I had got the best of the bargain.
Having disencumbered myself of my mule in so tradesmanlike a manner, I went with my landlord to a carrier who was to set out early the next morning for Astorga, and engaged to call me up in time. When we had settled the hire of the mule, as well as the expenses on the road, I turned back towards the inn with Corcuelo, who, as we went along, got into the private history of this muleteer. When I had been pestered with all the tittle-tattle of the town about this fellow, the changes were just beginning to ring on some new subject; but, by good luck, a pretty-looking sort of a man very civilly interrupted my loquacious friend. I left them together, and sauntered on without the slightest suspicion of being at all concerned in their discourse.
I ordered supper as soon as I got to the inn. It was a fish day: but I thought eggs were better suited to my finances. While they were getting ready I joined in conversation with the landlady, whom I had not seen before. She seemed a pretty piece of goods enough, and such a stirring body, that I should have concluded, if her husband had not told me so, her tavern must have plenty of custom. The moment the omelet was served up I sat down to table by myself, and had scarcely got the relish of it, when my landlord walked in, followed by the man who had stopped him in the street. This pleasant gentleman wore a long rapier, and might, perhaps, be about thirty years of age. He came up to me in the most friendly manner possible. Mr Professor, says he, I have just now heard that you are the renowned Gil Blas of Santillane, that ornament of Oviedo and luminary of philosophy. And do my eyes behold that very greatest of all great scholars and wits, whose reputation has run hither so fast before him? Little do you think, continues he, directing his discourse to the landlord and landlady, little do you imagine, I say, what good luck has befallen you. Why, you have got hold of a treasure. In this young gentleman you behold the eighth wonder of the world. Then running up and throwing his arms about my neck, Excuse me, added he; but worlds would not bribe me to suppress the rapturous emotions your honoured presence has excited.
I could not answer him so glibly as I wished, not so much for want of words as of breath; for he hugged me so tight that I began to be alarmed for my wind pipe. As soon, however, as I had got my head out of durance, I replied, Signor cavalier, I had not the least conception that my name was known at Pegnaflor. Known? resumed he in the same pompous style; we keep a register of all great persons within a circuit of twenty leagues round us. You have the character of a prodigy here; and I have not a shadow of doubt, but one day or other Spain will be as proud of numbering you among her rare productions, as Greece of having given birth to her seven wise men. This fine speech was followed as before; and I really began to think that with all my classical honours I should at last be doomed to share the fate of Antaeus. If I had been master of ever so little experience, I should not have been the dupe of his rhodomontade. I must have discovered him by his outrageous compliments, to be one of those parasites who swarm in every town, and get into a stranger's company on his arrival, to appease the wolf in their stomachs at his expense; but my youth and vanity tempted me to draw a quite opposite conclusion. My admirer was very clever in my eyes, and I asked him to supper on the strength of it. Oh! most willingly, cried be: with all my heart and soul. My fortunate star predominates, now that I have the honour of being in company with the illustrious Gil Blas of Santillane, and I shall certainly make the most of my good fortune as long as it lasts. My appetite is rather delicate, but I will just sit down with you by way of being sociable, and if I can swallow a bit! only just not to look sulky; for we philosophers are careless of the body.
These words were no sooner out of his mouth, than my panegyrist took his seat opposite to me. A cover was laid for him in due form and order. First he fell on the omelet with as much perseverance as if he had not tasted food for three whole days. By the complacency with which he eyed it I was morally certain the poor pancake was at death's door. I therefore ordered its heir apparent to succeed; and the business was despatched with such speed, that the second made its appearance on the table, just as we; -- no: -- I beg pardon; -- just as he had taken the last lick of its predecessor. He pressed forward the main business, however, with a diligence and activity proportioned to the importance of the object he had in view: so that he contrived to load me with panegyric on panegyric, without losing a single stroke in the progress of mastication. Now all this gave me no slender conceit of my pretty little self. When a man eats, he must drink. The first toast of course was my health. The second, in common civility, was my father and mother, whose happiness in having such an angel of a son, he could not sufficiently envy or admire. All this while he kept filling my glass, and challenging me to keep pace with him. It was impossible to be backward in doing justice to such excellent toasts and sentiments: the compliments with which they were seasoned did not come amiss; so that I got into such a convivial mood, at observing our second omelet to disappear not insensibly, as just to ask the landlord if he could not find us a little bit of fish. Master Corcuelo, who to all appearance played booty with the parasite, told me he had an excellent trout; but those who eat him must pay for him. I am afraid he is meat for your masters. Meat for our masters! exclaims my very humble servant in an angry tone of voice: that is more than you know, my friend. Are you yet to learn that the best of your larder is not too good for the renowned Gil Blas of Santillane? Go where he will, he is fit to table with princes.
I was very glad that he took up the landlord's last expression; because if he had not, I should. I felt myself a little hurt at it, and said to Corcuelo with some degree of hauteur: Produce this trout of yours, and I will take the consequences. The landlord, who had got just what he wanted, set himself to work, and served it up in high order. At the first glance of this third course I saw such pleasure sparkling in the parasite's eyes, as proved him to be of a very complying temper; just as ready to do a kindness by the fish, as by those said eggs of which he had given so good an account. But at last he was obliged to lay down his arms for fear of accidents; as his magazine was crammed to the very throat. Having eat and drank his fill, he bethought him of putting a finishing hand to the farce. Master Gil Blas, said he, as he rose from the table, I am too well pleased with my princely entertainment to leave you without a word of advice, of which you seem to stand in much need. From this time forward be on your guard against extravagant praise. Do not trust men till you know them. You may meet with many another man, who, like me, may amuse himself at your expense, and perhaps carry the joke a little further. But do not you be taken in a second time, to believe yourself; on the word of such fellows, the eighth wonder of the world. With this sting in the tail of his farewell speech he very coolly took his leave.
I was as much alive to so ridiculous a circumstance, as I have ever been in after-life to the most severe mortifications. I did not know how to reconcile myself to the idea of having been so egregiously taken in, or, in fact, to lowering of my pride. So, so! quoth I, this rascal has been putting his tricks upon travellers, has he? Then he only wanted to pump my landlord! or more likely they were both in a story. Ah! my poor Gil Blas, thou hadst better hide thy silly head! To have suffered such knaves as these to turn thee into ridicule! A pretty story they will make of this! It is sure to travel back to Oviedo; and will give our friends a hopeful prospect of thy success in life. The family will be quite delighted to think what a blessed harvest all their pious advice has produced. There was no occasion to preach up morals to thee; for verily thou hast more of the dupe than the sharper in thy composition. Ready to tear my eyes out or bite my fingers off from spite and vexation, I locked myself up in my chamber and went to bed, but not to sleep; of which I had not got a wink when the muleteer came to tell me, that he only waited for me to set out on his journey. I got up as expeditiously as I could; and while I was dressing Corcuelo put in his appearance, with a little bill in his hand; -- a slight memorandum of the trout! -- But paying through the nose was not the worst of it; for I had the vexation to perceive, that while I was counting over the cost, this hang-dog was chuckling at the recollection of the night before. Having been fleeced most shamefully for a supper, which stuck in my stomach though I had scarcely come in for a morsel of it, I joined the muleteer with my baggage, giving to as many devils as there are saints in the calendar, the parasite, the landlord, and the inn.