CH. XIII. -- Gil Blas comes across his dear friend Fabricio at court. Great ecstacy on both sides. They adjourn together, and compare notes; but their conversation is too curious to be anticipated.
I HAD contracted a habit of going to the royal palace every morning, where I lounged away two or three good hours in seeing the good people pass to and fro; but their aspect was less imposing there than in other places, as the lesser stars turn pale in the presence of the sun. One day as I was walking back and fore, and strutting about the apartments, making about as wise a figure there as my neighbours, I spied out Fabricio, whom I had left at Valladolid in the service of a hospital director. It surprised me not a little that he was chatting familiarly with the Duke of Medina Sidonia and the Marquis of Santa Cruz, Those two noblemen, if my senses did not deceive me, were listening with admiration to his prattle. To crown the whole, he was as handsomely dressed as a grandee.
Surely I must be mistaken! thought I. Can this possibly be the son of Nunez the barber? More likely it is some young courtier who bears a strong resemblance to him. But my suspense was of no long duration. The party broke up, and I accosted Fabricio. He knew me at once; took me by the hand, and after pressing through the crowd to get out of the precincts, said with a hearty greeting, My dear Gil Blas, I am delighted to see you again. What are you doing at Madrid? Are you still at service? Some place about the court perhaps? How do matters stand with you? Let me into the history of all that has happened to you since your precipitate flight from Valladolid. You ask a great many questions in a breath, replied I; and we are not in a fit place for story-telling. You are in the right, answered he; we shall be better at home Come, I will shew you the way; it is not far hence I am quite my own master, with all my comforts about me; perfectly easy as to the main chance, with a light heart and a happy temper; because I am determined to see everything on the bright side.
I accepted the proposal, and Fabricio escorted me. We stopped at a house of magnificent appearance, where he told me that he lived. There was a court to cross; on one side it had a grand staircase leading to a suite of state apartments, and on the other a small flight, dark and narrow, whither we betook ourselves to a residence elevated in a different sense from what he had boasted. It consisted of a single room, which my contriving friend had divided into four by deal partitions. The first served as an ante-chamber to the second, where he lay: of the third he made his closet, of the last his kitchen, The chamber and antechamber were papered with maps, and many a sheet of philosophical discussion; nor was the furniture by any means unsuitable to the hangings. There was a large brocade bed much the worse for wear; tawdry old chairs with coarse yellow coverings, fringed with Grenada silk of the same colour, a table with gilt feet, and a cloth over it that once aspired to be red, bordered with tinsel and embroidery tarnished by that old corroder, time; with an ebony cabinet, ornamented with figures in a clumsy taste of sculpture. Instead of a convenient desk, he had a small table in his closet; and his library was made up with some few books, and a great many bundles of paper arranged on shelves one above the other the whole length of the wall. His kitchen, too modest to put the rest of the establishment out of countenance, exhibited a frugal assortment of earthenware and other necessary implements of cookery.
Fabricio, when he had allowed me leisure to philosophize on his domestic arrangements, begged to know my opinion of his apartments and his housekeeping, and whether I was not enchanted with them: Yes, beyond all manner of doubt, answered I with a roguish smile. You must have applied your wits to a good purpose at Madrid, to have got so well accoutred. Of course you have some post. Heaven preserve me from anything of the sort! replied he. My line of life is far above all political situations. A man of rank, to whom this house belongs, has given me a room in it, whence I have contrived to piece out a suite of four, fitted up in such taste as you may see. I devote my time to no employments but what are just to my fancy, and never feel what it is to want. Explain yourself more intelligibly, said I, interrupting him. You set me all agog to be let into your little arrangements. Well, then! said he, I will rid you of that devil curiosity at once. I have commenced author, have plunged head long into the ocean of literature; verse and prose run equally glib; in short I am a jack of all trades to the muses.
What! you bound in solemn league and covenant to Apollo? exclaimed I with most intolerable laughter. Nothing under a prophet could ever have anticipated this. I should have been less surprised at any other transformation. What possible delights have you had the ingenuity to detect in the rugged landscape of Parnassus? It should seem as if the labourers there have a very poor taking in civil life, and feed on a coarse diet without sauce. Out upon you! cried he, in dudgeon at the hint. You are talking of those paltry authors, whose works and even their persons are under the thumb of booksellers and players. Is it any wonder that writers under such circumstances should be held cheap? But the good ones, my friend, are on a better footing in the world; and I think it may he affirmed, vanity apart, that my name is to be found in their list. Questionless, said I, talents like yours are convertible to every purpose; compositions from such a pen are not likely to be insipid. But I am on the rack to know how this rage for fencing with inky weapons could have seized thee.
Your wonder and alarm has mind in it, replied Nunez. I was so well pleased with my situation in the service of Signor Manuel Ordonnez, that I had no hankering after any other. But my genius, like that of Plautus, being too high. minded to contract itself within the sphere of menial occupations, I wrote a play and got it acted by a company then performing at Valladolid. Though it was not worth the paper it was scrawled upon, it had more success than many better pieces. Hence concluded I that the public was a silly bird, and would hatch any eggs that were put under it. That modest discovery, with the consequent madness of incessant composition, alienated my affections from the hospital. The love of poetry being stronger than the desire of accumulation, I determined on repairing to Madrid, as the centre of everything distinguished, to form my taste in that school. The first thing was to give the governor warning, who parted with me to his own great sorrow, from a sort of affection the result of similar propensities. Fabricio, said he, what possible ground can you have for discontent? None at all, sir, I replied; you are the best of all possible masters, and I am deeply impressed with your kind treatment; but you know one must follow whithersoever the stars ordain. I feel the sacred fire within me, on whose aspiring element my name is to be wafted to posterity. What confounded nonsense! rejoined the old fellow, whose ideas were all pecuniary. You are already become a fixture in the hospital, and are made of a metal which may easily be manufactured into a steward, or by good-luck even into a governor. You are going to give up the great object of life, and to flutter about its frippery. So much the worse for you, honest friend!
The governor, seeing how fruitless it was to struggle with my fixed resolve, paid me my wages, and made me a present of fifty ducats as an acknowledgment of my services. Thus, between this supply and what I have been able to scrape together out of some little commissions, which were assigned to me from an opinion of my disinterestedness, I was in circumstances to make a very pretty appearance on my arrival at Madrid; which I was not negligent in doing, though the literary tribe in our country are not over-punctilious about decency or cleanliness. I soon got acquainted with Lope de Vega, Cervantes, and the whole set of them; but though they were fine fellows, and thought so by the public, I chose for my model in preference, Don Lewis de Gongora, the incomparable, a young bachelor of Cordova, decidedly the first genius that ever Spain produced. He will not suffer his works to be printed during his lifetime; but confines himself to a private communication among his friends. What is very remarkable, nature has gifted him with the uncommon talent of succeeding in every department of poetry. His principal excellence is in satire; there he outshines himself. He does not resemble, like Lucilius, a muddy stream with a slimy bottom; but is rather like the Tagus, rolling its transparent waters over a golden sand.
You give a fine description of this bachelor, said I to Fabricio; and questionless a character of such merit must have attracted an infinite deal of envy. The whole gang of authors, answered he, good and bad equally, are open mouthed against him. He deals in bombast, says one; aims at double meanings, luxuriates in metaphor and affects transposition. His verses, says another, have all the obscurity of those which the Salian priests used to chaunt in their processions, and which nobody was the wiser for hearing. There are others who impute it to him as a fault, to have exercised his genius at one time in sonnets or ballads, at another in play-writing, in heroic stanzas, and in minor efforts of wit alternately, as if he had madly taken upon himself to eclipse the best writers each in their own favourite walk. But all these thrusts of jealousy are successfully parried, where the muse, which is their mark, becomes the idol of the great and of the multitude at once.
Under so able a master did I serve my apprenticeship; and, vanity apart, the preceptor was reflected in the disciple. So happily did I catch his spirit, that by this time he would not be ashamed to own some of my detached pieces. After his example, I carry my goods to market at great houses where the bidding is eager, and the sagacity of the bidders not difficult to match. It is true that I have a very insinuating talent at recitation; which places my compositions in no disadvantageous light. In short, I am the dear delight of the nobility, and live in the most particular intimacy with the Duke of Medina Sidonia, just as Horace used to live with his jolly companion Maecenas. By such conjuration and mighty magic have I won the name of author. You see the method lies within a narrow compass. Now, Gil Blas, it is your turn to deliver a round unvarnished tale of your exploits.
On this hint I spake; and unlike most narrators, gave all the important particulars, passing lightly over minute and tiresome circumstances. The action of talking, long continued, puts one in mind of dining. His ebony cabinet, which served for larder, pantry, and all possible uses, was ransacked for napkins, bread, a shoulder of mutton far gone in a decline, with its last and best contents, a bottle of excellent wine; so that we sat down to table in high spirits, as friends are wont to do after a long separation. You observe, said he, this free and independent manner of life. I might find a plate laid for me every day, if I chose it, in the very first houses; but, besides that the muse often pays me a visit and detains me within doors, I have a little of Aristippus in my nature. I can pass with equal relish from the great and busy world to my re treat, from all the researches of luxury to the simplicity of my own frugal board.
The wine was so good, that we encroached upon a second bottle. As a relish to our fruit and cheese, I begged to be favoured with the sight of something, the offspring of his inspired moments. He immediately rummaged among his papers, and read me a sonnet with much energy of tone. Yet, with all the advantage of accent and expression, there was something so uncouth in the arrangement, as to baffle all conjecture about the meaning. He saw how it puzzled me. This sonnet then, said he, is not quite level to your comprehension! Is not that the fact! I owned that I should have preferred a construction somewhat less forced. He began laughing at my rusticity. Well, then! replied he; we will say that this sonnet would confuse clearer heads than thine: it is all the better for that Sonnets, odes, in short all compositions which partake of the sublime, are of course the reverse of the simple and natural: they are enveloped in clouds, and their darkness constitutes their grandeur. Let the poet only fancy that be understands himself no matter whether his readers understand him or not. You are laughing at me, my friend, said I, interrupting him. Let poetry be of what species it may, good sense and intelligible diction are essential to its powers of pleasing. If your peerless Gongora is not a little more lucid than yourself, I protest that his merit will never pass current with me. Such poets may entrap their own age into applause, but will never live beyond it. Now let me have a taste of your prose.
Nunez shewed me a preface which he meant to prefix to a dramatic miscellany then in the press. He insisted on having my opinion. I like not your prose one atom better than your verse, said I. Your sonnet is a roaring deluge of emptiness; and as for your preface, it is disfigured by a phraseology stolen from languages yet in embryo, by words not stamped in the mint of general use, by all the perplexity of a style that does not know what to make of itself. In a word, the composition is altogether a thing of your own. Our classical and standard books are written in a very different manner. Poor tasteless wretch! exclaimed Fabricio. You are not aware that every prose writer who aspires to the reputation of sentiment and delicacy in these days, affects this style of his own, these perplexities and innovations which are a stumbling-block to you. There are five or six of us determined reformers of our language, who have undertaken to turn the Spanish idiom topsy-turvy; and with a blessing on our endeavours, we will pull it down and build it up again in defiance of Lope de Vega, Cervantes, and all the host of wits who cavil at our new modes of speech. Our party is strongly supported in the fashionable world, and we have laid violent hands upon the pulpit.
After all, continued he, our project is commendable; for, to speak without prejudice, we have ten times the merit of those natural writers, who express themselves just like the mob. I cannot conceive why so many sensible men are taken with them. It is all very well at Athens and at Rome, in a wild and undistinguishing democracy; and on that principle only could Socrates tell Alcibiades, that the last appeal was to the people in all disputes about language. But at Madrid there is a polite and a vulgar usage; so that our courtiers talk in a different tongue from their tradesmen. You may assure yourself that it is so; in fine, this newly invented style is carrying everything before it, and turning old nature out of doors. Now I will explain to you by a single instance the difference between the elegance of our diction and the flatness of theirs. They would say, for example, in plain terms, "Ballets incidental to the piece are an ornament to a play;" but in our mode of expression, we say more exquisitely, "Ballets incidental to the piece are the very life and soul of the play." Now observe the phrase; life and soul. Are you sensible how glowing it is, at the same time how descriptive, setting before you all the motions of the dancers, as on an intellectual stage?
I broke in upon my reformer of language with a burst of laughter. Get along with you, Fabricio, said I, you are a coxcomb of your own manufacture, with your affected finery of phrase. And you, answered he, are a blockhead of nature's clumsy moulding, with your starch simplicity. He then went on taunting me with the archbishop of Grenada's angry banter on my dismission. "Get about your business! Go and tell my treasurer to pay you a hundred ducats, and take my blessing in addition to that sum. God speed you, good master Gil Blas! I heartily pray that you may do well in the world! There is no thing to stand in your way, but a little better taste." I roared out in a still louder explosion of laughter at this lucky hit; and Fabricio, easily appeased on the score of impiety, as manifested in the opinion expressed concerning his writings, lost nothing of his pleasant and propitious temper. We got to the bottom of our second bottle; and then rose from the table in fine order for an adventure. Our first intention was to see what was to be seen upon the Prado; but passing in front of a liquor-shop, it came into our heads that we might as well go in.
The company was in general tolerably select at this house of call. There were two distinct apartments; and the pastime in each was of a very opposite nature. One was devoted to games of chance or skill; the other to literary and scientific discussion: and there were at that moment two clever men by profession handling an argument most pertinaciously, before ten or twelve auditors deeply interested in the discussion. There was no occasion to join the circle, because the metaphysical thunder of their logic made itself heard at a more respectful distance: the heat and passion with which this abstract controversy was managed made the two philosophers look little better than madmen. A certain Eleazar used to cast out devils, by tying a ring to the nose of the possessed; had these learned swine been ringed in the same manner, how many little imps would have taken wing out of their nostrils? Angels and ministers of grace defend us, said I to my companion: what contortions of gesture, what extravagance of elocution! One might as well argue with the town crier. How little do we know our natural calling in society! Very true indeed, answered he: you have read of Novius, the Roman pawnbroker, whose lungs went as far beyond the rattle of chariot-wheels, as his conscience beyond the rate of legal interest; the Novii must certainly have been transplanted into Spain, and these fellows are lineal descendants. But the hopeless part of the case is, that though our organs of sense are deafened, our understandings are not invigorated at their expense. We thought it best to make our escape from these braying metaphysicians, and by that prudent motion to avoid a headache which was just beginning to annoy us. We went and seated ourselves in a corner of the other room, whence, as we sipped our refreshing beverage, all comers and goers were obnoxious to our criticism. Nunez was acquainted with almost the whole set. Heaven and earth! exclaimed he, the clash of philosophy is as yet but in its beginning; fresh reinforcements are coming in on both sides. Those three men just on the threshold, mean to let slip the dogs of war. But do you see those two queer fellows going out? That little swarthy, leather-complexioned Adonis, with long lank hair parted in the middle with mathematical exactness, is Don Juliano de Villanuno. He is a young barrister, with more of the prig than the lawyer about him. A party of us went to dine with him the other day. The occupation we caught him in was singular enough. He was amusing himself in his office with making a tall grey-hound fetch and carry the briefs in the causes which were so unfortunate as to have him retained; and of course the canine amicus curiae set his fangs indifferently into the flesh of plaintiff or defendant, tearing law, equity, precedent, and principle into shreds. That licentiate at his elbow, with jolly, pimple-spangled nose and cheeks, goes by the name of Don Cherubino Tonto. He is a canon of Toledo, and the greatest fool that was ever suffered to walk the earth without a keeper. And yet, he arrays his features in that sort of not quite unmeaning smile, that you would give him credit for good sense as well as good humour. His eye has the look of cunning if not of wisdom, and his laugh too much of sarcasm for an absolute idiot. One would conclude that he had a turn for mischief, but kept it down from principle and feeling. If you wish to take his opinion upon a work of genius, he will hear it read with so grave and wrapt a silence, as nothing but deep thought and acute mental criticism could justify; but the truth is, that he comprehends not one word, and therefore can have nothing to say. He was of the barrister party. There were a thousand good things said, as there always must be in a professional company. Don Cherubino added nothing to the mass of merriment; but looked such perfect approbation at those who did, was so tractable and complimentary a listener, that every man at table placed him second in the comparative estimate of merit.
Do you know, said I to Nunez, who those two fellows are with dirty clothes and matted hair, their elbows on that table in the corner, and their cheeks upon their hands, whiffing foul breath into each other's nostrils as they lay their heads together? He told me that by their faces they were strangers to him; but that by physical and moral tokens they could only be coffee-house politicians, venting their spleen against the measures of government. But do look at that spruce spark, whistling as he paces up and down the other room, and balancing himself alternately on one toe and on the other. That is Don Augustino Moreto, a young poet sufficiently of nature's mint and coinage to pass current, if flatterers and sciolists had not debased him into a mere coxcomb by their misplaced admiration. The man to whom he is going up with that familiar shake by the hand, is one of the set who write verses and then call themselves poets; who claim a speaking acquaintance with the muses, but never were of their private parties.
Authors upon authors, nothing but authors! exclaimed he, pointing out two dashing blades. One would think they had made an appointment on purpose to pass in review before you. Don Bernardo Deslenguado and Don Sebastian of Villa Viciosa! The first is a vinegar-flavoured vintage of Parnassus, a satirist by trade and company; he hates all the world, and is not liked the better for his taste. As for Don Sebastian, he is the milk and honey of criticism; he would not have the guilt of ill-nature on his conscience for the universe. He has just brought out a comedy without a single idea, which has succeeded with an audience of tantamount ideas; and he has just now published it to vindicate his innocence.
Gongora's candid pupil was running on in his career of benevolent explanation, when one of the Duke de Medina Sidonia's household came up and said: Signor Don Fabricio, my lord duke wishes to speak with you. You will find him at home. Nunez, who knew that the wishes of a great lord could not be too soon gratified, left me without ceremony; but he left me in the utmost consternation, to hear him called Don, and thus ennobled, in spite of master Chrysostom the barber's escutcheon, who had the honour to call him father.