CH. VI. -- Gil Blas gives the Duke of Lerma a hint of his wretched condition. That minister deals with him accordingly.

 

WHEN the king kept his court at the Escurial, all the world was at free quarters: under such easy circumstances I did not feel where the saddle galled. My bed was in a wardrobe near the duke's chamber. One morning that minister, having got up according to his cursed custom at daybreak, made me take my writing apparatus, and follow him into the palace gardens. We went and sat down under an avenue of trees; myself, as he would have it, in the posture of a man writing on the crown of his hat; his attitude was with a paper in his hand, and any one would have supposed he had been reading. At some distance, we must have looked as if the scale of Europe was to turn upon our decision; but between ourselves, who partook of it, the talk was miserably trifling.

For more than an hour had I been tickling his excellency's fancy with all the conceits, engendered by a merry nature and an eccentric course of life, when two magpies perched on the trees above us. Their clack and clatter was so obstreperous, as to force our attention whether we would or no. These birds, said the duke, seem to be in dudgeon with one another. I should like to learn the cause of their quarrel. My lord, said I, your curiosity reminds me of an Indian story in Pilpay or some other fabulist. The minister insisted on the particulars, and I related them in the following terms:

There reigned in Persia a good monarch, who not being blessed with capacities of sufficient compass to govern his dominions in his own person, left the care of them to his grand vizier. That minister, whose name was Atalmuc, was possessed of first-rate talents. He supported the weight of that unwieldy monarchy, without sinking under the burden. He preserved it in profound peace. His art consisted in uniting the love of the royal authority with the reverence of it; while the people at large looked up to the vizier as to an affectionate father, though a devoted servant of his prince. Atalmuc had a young Cachemirian among his secretaries, by name Zeangir, to whom he was particularly attached. He took pleasure in his conversation, invited him frequently to the chase, and opened to him his most secret thoughts. One day as they were hunting together in a wood, the vizier, at the croaking of two ravens on a tree, said to his secretary -- I should like to know what those birds are talking about in their jargon. My lord, answered the Cachemirian, your wishes may be fulfilled. Indeed! How so? replied Atalmuc. Because, rejoined Zeangir, a dervise read in many mysteries, has taught me the language of birds. If you wish it, I will lay my ear close to these, and will repeat to you word for word whatever they may happen to say.

The vizier agreed to the proposal. The Cachemirian got near the ravens, and affected to suck in their discourse. Then, returning to his master, My lord, said he, would you believe it? We are ourselves the topic of their talk. Impossible! exclaimed the Persian minister. Prithee now, what do they say of us? One of the two, replied the secretary, spoke thus: Here he is, the very man; the grand vizier Atalmuc, the guardian eagle of Persia, hovering over her like the parent bird over its nest, watching without intermission for the safety of its brood. For the purpose of unbending from his wearisome toils, he is hunting in this wood with his faithful Zeangir. How happy must that secretary be, to serve so partial and indulgent a master! Fair and softly, observed the other raven shrewdly, fair and softly! Make not too much parade about that Cachemirian's happiness. Atalmuc, it is true, talks and jokes familiarly with him, honours him with his confidence, and may very possibly intend to signalize his friendship by a lucrative post; but between the cup and the lip Zeangir may perish with thirst. The poor devil lodges in a ready-furnished apartment, where there is not an article of furniture for his use. In a word, he leads a starving life, with all the paraphernalia of a plump-fed courtier. The grand vizier never troubles his head about inquiring into the right or wrong of his affairs; but satisfied with empty good wishes towards him, leaves his favourite within the ruthless gripe of poverty.

I stopped here, to see how the Duke of Lerma would take it; and he asked me with a smile what effect the fable had produced on the mind of Atalmuc; and whether the grand vizier had not felt a little offended at the secretary's presumption. No, my noble lord, answered I, with some little embarrassment at the question; historians say that his ingenuity was amply rewarded. He was more lucky than discreet, replied the duke with a serious air; there are some ministers who would esteem it no joke to be lectured at that rate. But the king will not be long before he is getting up; my duty demands my attendance. After this hint he walked off with hasty strides towards the palace without throwing away a word more upon me, and to all appearance in high dudgeon at my Indian parable.

I followed him up to the very door of his majesty's chamber, and went thence to arrange my papers in the places whence they had been taken. Then I entered a closet where our two copying secretaries were at work; for they also were of the migratory party. What is the matter with you, Signor de Santillane? said they at the sight of me. You are quite down in the mouth! Has anything untoward happened?

I was too much mortified at the ill success of my narrative, to be cautious in the expression of my grief. On the recital of what had passed with the duke, they sympathized in my disappointment You have some reason to fret, said one of them. Heaven grant you may be better treated than a secretary of Cardinal Spinosa. This unlucky secretary, tired of working for fifteen months without pay, took the liberty of representing his necessities to his Eminence one afternoon, and of asking for a little money towards his subsistence. It is very proper, said the minister, that you should be paid. Here, pursued he, putting into his hands an order on the royal treasury for a thousand ducats; go and receive that sum; but take notice at the same time that it balances accounts between us. The secretary would have pocketed his thousand ducats without remorse, had the thousand ducats been tangible, and the liberty of changing services secure; but just as he stepped down from the cardinal's threshold, he was tapped on the shoulder by an alguazil, and carried away to the tower of Segovia, where he has been a prisoner for a length of lime.

This little historical anecdote set my teeth chattering. All was lost and gone! There was no comfort from within nor from without! My own impatience had been my ruin! just as if I had not borne starving, till patience could avail no longer. Alas! said I, wherefore must I have blurted out that ill-starred fable, which went so much against the grain of the minister? He might have been just on the point of extricating me from all my miseries; it might have been the moment of that tide in the affairs of men, which sets in for sudden and enormous elevation. What wealth, what honours have slipped through the fingers by my blunder! I ought to have been aware that great folks do not love to be forestalled, but require the common privileges of elementary subsistence to be received as favours at their hands. It would have been more prudent to have kept my lenten entertainment longer without bothering the duke about it, and even to have died with hunger, that he might be blamed for letting me.

Supposing any hope to have remained, my master, when I saw him after dinner, put an extinguisher over it at once. He was very serious with me, contrary to his usual custom, and spoke scarcely at all; an omen of dire dismay for the remainder of the evening. The night did not pass more tranquilly: the chagrin of seeing my agreeable illusions vanish, and the fear of swelling the calendar of state prisoners, left no room but for sighs and lamentations.

The following was the critical day. The duke sent for me in the morning. I went into his chamber, with the ague fit of a criminal before his judge. Santillane, said he, showing me a paper in his hand, take this order . . . . I shuddered at the word order, and said within myself: Oh heaven! here is the Cardinal Spinosa over again; the carriage is ordered out for Segovia. Such was my alarm at this moment, that I interrupted the minister, and throwing myself at his feet, May it please your lordship, said I, bathed in tears, I most humbly beseech your excellency to forgive me for my boldness; necessity alone impelled me to acquaint you with my wretched circumstances.

The duke could not help laughing at my distress. Be comforted, Gil Blas, answered he, and hearken attentively. Though by betraying your necessities a reproach lights upon me for not having prevented them, I do not take it ill, my friend. I rather ought to be angry with myself for not having inquired how you were going on. But to begin making amends for my want of attention, there is an order on the royal treasury for fifteen hundred ducats, payable at sight. This is not all; I promise you the same sum annually; and moreover, when people of rank and substance shall solicit your interest, I have no objection to your addressing me on their behalf.

In the excess of joy occasioned by such tidings, I kissed the feet of the minister, who, having commanded me to rise, continued in familiar conversation. I endeavoured to rally my free and easy humour; but the transition from sorrow to rapture was too instantaneous to be natural. I felt as comical as a culprit, with a pardon singing in his ears, just when he was on the point of being launched into eternity. My master attributed all my flurry to the sole dread of having offended him; though the fear of perpetual imprisonment had its share of influence on my nerves. He owned that he had affected to look cool, to see whether I should be hurt at the alteration; that thereby he formed his opinion with respect to the liveliness of my attachment to his person, and that his own regard for me would always be proportionate.

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