CH. X. -- The morals of Gil Blas become at court much as if they had never been at all. A commission from the Count de Lemos, which, like most court commissions, implies an intrigue.

 

WHEN once my name was up for a man after the Duke of Lerma's own heart, I had very soon my court about me. Every morning was my ante-chamber crowded with company, and my levees were all the fashion. Two sorts of customers came to my shop; one set, to engage my interposition with the minister, on fair commercial principles; the other set, to excite my compassion by pathetic statements of their cases, and give me a lift to heaven on the packhorse of charity. The first were sure of being heard patiently and served diligently; with regard to the second order, I got rid of them at once by plausible evasions, or kept them dangling till they wore their patience threadbare, and went off in a huff. Before I was about the court my nature was compassionate and charitable; but tenderness of heart is an unfashionable frailty there, and mine became harder than any flint. Here was an admirable school to correct the romantic sensibilities of friendship: nor was my philosophy any longer assailable in that quarter. My manner of dealing with Joseph Navarro, under the following circumstances, will prove more than volumes on that head.

This Navarro, the founder of my fortune, to whom my obligations were thick and threefold, paid me a visit one day. With the warmest expressions of regard such as he was in the habit of lavishing, he begged me to ask the Duke of Lerma for a certain situation for one of his friends, a young man of excellent qualities and undoubted merit, but incumbered with an inability of getting on in the world. I am well assured, added Joseph, that with your good and obliging disposition, you will be enraptured to confer a favour on a worthy man with a very slender purse; I am sure you will feel obliged to me for giving you an opportunity of carrying your benevolent inclinations into effect This was just as good as telling me that the business was to be done for nothing. Though such doctrine was not quite level to my capacity, I still affected a wish to do as he desired. It gives me infinite pleasure, answered I to Navarro, to have it in my power to evince my lively sense of all your former kindness to me. It is enough for you to take any man living by the hand; from that moment he becomes the object of my unwearied care. Your friend shall have the situation you want for him; nay, he has it already: it is no longer any concern of yours; leave it entirely to me.

On this assurance Joseph went away in high glee; nevertheless, the person he recommended had not the post in question. It was given to another man, and my strong box was the stronger by a thousand ducats. This sum was infinitely preferable to all the thanks in the world, so that I looked pitifully blank when next we met, saying -- Ah, my dear Navarro! you should have thought of speaking to me sooner. That Calderona got the start of me; he has given away a certain thing that shall be nameless. I am vexed to the soul not to meet you with better tidings.

Joseph was fool enough to give me credit, and we parted better friends than ever; but I suspect that he soon found out the truth, for he never came near me again. This was just what I wanted. Besides that the memory of benefits received grated harshly, it would not have been at all the thing for a person in my then sphere to keep company with a certain description of people.

The Count de Lemos has been long in the background, let us bring him a little forwarder on the canvas. We met occasionally. I had carried him a thousand pistoles, as the reader will recollect; and I now carried him a thousand more, by order of his uncle the duke, out of his excellency's funds lying in my hands. On this occasion the Count de Lemos honoured me with a long conference. He informed me that at length he had completely gained his end, and was in unrivalled possession of the Prince of Spain's good graces, whose sole confidant he was. His next concern was to invest me with a right honourable commission, of which he had already given me a hint. Friend Santillane, said he, now is the time to strike while the iron is hot. Spare no pains to find out some young beauty, worthy to while away the prince's amorous hours. You have your wits about you; and a word to the wise is sufficient. Go; run about the town; pry into every hole and corner; and when you have pounced upon anything likely to suit, you will come and let me know. I promised the count to leave no stone unturned in the due discharge of my employment, which seemed to require no great force of genius, since the professors of the science are so numerous.

I had not hitherto been much practised in such delicate investigations, but it was more than probable that Scipio had, and that his talent lay peculiarly that way. On my return home I called him in, and spoke thus to him in private: My good fellow, I have a very important secret to impart. Do you know that in the midst of fortune's favours, there is something still wanting to crown all my wishes? I can easily guess what that is, interrupted he, without giving me time to finish what I was going to say; you want a little snug bit of contraband amusement, to keep you awake of evenings, and rub off the dust of business. And, in fact, it is a marvellous thing that you should have played the Joseph in the heyday of your blood, when so many greybeards around you are playing the Elder. I admire the quickness of your apprehension, replied I with a smile. Yes, my friend, a mistress is that something still wanting; and you shall choose for me. But I forewarn you that I am nice hungry, and must have a pretty person, with more than passable manners. The sort of thing that you require, returned Scipio, is not always to be met with in the market. Yet, as luck will have it, we are in a town where everything is to be got for money, and I am in hopes that your commission will not hang long on hand.

Accordingly within three days he pulled me by the sleeve: I have discovered a treasure! a young lady whose name is Catalina, of good family and matchless beauty, living with her aunt in a small house, where they make both ends meet by clubbing their little matters, and set the slanderous world at defiance. Their waiting-maid, a girl of my acquaintance, has given me to understand that their door, though barred against all impertinent intruders, would turn upon its hinges to a rich and generous suitor, if he would only consent, for fear of prying neighbours, not to pay his visits till after night-fall, and then in the most private manner possible. Hereupon I magnified you as the properest gentleman in the world, and intreated piety in pattens to offer your humble services to the ladies. She promised to do so, and to bring me back my answer to-morrow morning at an appointed place. That is all very well, answered I; but I am afraid your goddess of bed-making has been running her rig upon you. No, no, replied he, old birds are not to be caught with chaff; I have already made inquiry in the neighbourhood, and by the general report of her, Signora Catalina is a second Danae, on whom you will have the happiness of coming down,

Like Jove descending from his tower,

To court her in a silver shower.

Out of conceit as I was with the intrinsic value of ladies' favours, this was not to be scoffed at; and as our Mercury in petticoats came the next day to tell Scipio that it only depended on me to be introduced that very evening, I dropped in between eleven and twelve o'clock. The knowing one received me without bringing a candle, and led me by the hand into a very neat apartment, where the two ladies were sitting on a satin sofa, dressed in the most elegant taste. As soon as they saw me enter, they got up and welcomed me in a style of such superior breeding, as would not have disgraced the highest rank. The aunt, whose name was Signora Mencia, though with the remains of beauty, had no attractions for me. But the niece had a million, for she was a goddess in mortal form. And yet, to examine her critically, she could not have been admitted for a perfect beauty; but then there was a charm above all rules of symmetry, with a tingling and luxurious warmth about her, that seized on men's hearts through their eyes, and prevented their brains from being too busy.

Neither were my senses proof against so dazzling a display. I forgot my errand as proxy, and spoke on my own private individual account, with the enthusiasm of a raw recruit in the tender passion. The dear little creature, whose wit sounded in my ears with three times its actual acuteness, under favour of her natural endowments, made a complete conquest of me by her prattle. I began to launch out into foolish raptures, when the aunt, to bring me to my bearings, led the conversation to the point in hand: Signor de Santillane, I shall deal very explicitly with you. On the high encomiums I have heard of your character, you have been admitted here, without the affectation of making much ado about trifles: but do not imagine that your views are the nearer their termination for that. Hitherto I have brought my niece up in retirement, and you are, as it were, the very first male creature on whom she has ever set eyes. If you deem her worthy of being your wife, I shall feel myself highly honoured by the alliance: it is for you to consider whether those terms suit you; but you cannot have her on cheaper.

This was proceeding to business with a vengeance! It put little Cupid to flight at once: or else he was just going to try one of his sharpest arrows upon me. But a truce with the Pantheon! A marriage so bluntly proposed dispelled the fairy vision: I sunk back at once into the count's plodding agent; and changing my tone, answered Signora Mencia thus: Madam, your frankness delights me, and I will meet it half-way. Whatever rank I may hold at court, lower than the highest is too low for the peerless Catalina. A far more brilliant offer waits her acceptance; the Prince of Spain shall be thrown into her toils. Surely it was enough to have refused my niece, replied the aunt sarcastically; such compliments are sufficiently unpleasing to our sex; it could not be necessary to make us your unfeeling sport. I really am not in so merry a mood, madam! exclaimed I: it is a plain matter of fact; I am commissioned to look out for a young lady of merit sufficient to engage the prince's heart, and receive his private visits; the object of my search is in your house, and here his royal highness shall fix his quarters.

Signora Mencia could scarcely believe her cars; neither were they grievously offended. Nevertheless, thinking it decent to be startled at the immorality of the proceeding, she replied to the following effect: Though I should give implicit credit to what you tell me, you must understand that I am not of a character to take pleasure in the infamous distinction of seeing my niece a prince's concubine. Every feeling of virtue and of honour revolts at the idea . . . . What a simpleton you are with your virtue and honour! interrupted I. You have not a notion above the level of a tradesman's wife. Was there ever anything so stupid as to consider affairs of this kind with a view to their moral tendency? It is stripping them of all their beauty and excellence. In the magic lanthorn of plenty, pleasure, and preferment, they appear with all their brightest gloss. Figure to yourself the heir to the monarchy at the happy Catalina's feet; fancy him all rapture and lavish bounty; nor doubt but that from her shall spring a hero, who shall immortalize his mother's name, by enrolling his own in the unperishable records of eternal fame.

Though the aunt desired no better sport than to take me at my word, she affected not to know what she had best do; and Catalina, who longed to have a grapple with the Prince of Spain, affected not to care about the matter; which made it necessary for me to press the siege closer; till at length Signora Mencia, finding me chop-fallen and ready to withdraw my forces, sounded a parley, and agreed to a convention, containing the two following articles. Imprimis, if the Prince of Spain, on the fame of Catalina's charms, should take fire, and determine to pay her a nightly visit, it should be my care to let the ladies know when they might expect him. Secondo, that the prince should be introduced to the said ladies as a private gentleman, accompanied only by himself and his principal purveyor.

After this capitulation, the aunt and niece were upon the best terms possible with me: they behaved as if we had known one another from our cradles; on the strength of which I ventured on some little familiarities, which were not taken at all unkindly; and when we parted, they embraced me of their own accord, and slabbered me over with inexpressible fondness. It is marvellous to think with what facility a tender connection is formed between persons in the same line of trade, but of opposite sexes. It might have been suspected by an eye-witness of my departure, in all the plenitude of warm and repeated salutation, that my visit had been more successful than it was.

The Count de Lemos was highly delighted when I announced the long-expected discovery. I spoke of Catalina in terms which made him long to see her. The following night I took him to her house, and he owned that I had beat the bush to some purpose. He told the ladies, he had no doubt but the Prince of Spain would be fully satisfied with my choice of a mistress, who, on her part, would have reason to be well pleased with such a lover; that the young prince was generous, good-tempered, and amiable; in short, he promised in a few days to bring him in the mode they enjoined, without retinue or publicity. That nobleman then took leave of them, and I withdrew with him. We got into his carriage, in which we had both driven thither, and which was waiting at the end of the street. He set me down at my own door, with a special charge to inform his uncle next day of the new game started, not forgetting to impress strongly how conducive a good bag of pistoles would be to the successful accomplishment of the adventure.

I did not fail on the following morning to go and give the Duke of Lerma an exact account of all that had passed. There was but one thing kept back. I did not mention Scipio's name, but took credit to myself for the discovery of Catalina. One makes a merit of any dirty work in the service of the great.

Abundant were the compliments paid me on this occasion. My good friend Gil Blas, said the minister with a bantering air, I am delighted that with all your talents you have that besides of discovering kind-hearted beauties; whenever I have occasion for such an article, you will have the goodness to supply me. My lord, answered I with mock gravity like his own, you are very obliging to give me the preference; but it may not he unseasonable to observe that there would be an indelicacy in my administering to your excellency's pleasures of this description. Signor Don Rodrigo has been so long in possession of that post about your person, that it would be manifest injustice to rob him of it. The duke smiled at my answer; and then changing the subject, asked whether his nephew did not want money for this new speculation. Excuse my negligence! said I; he will thank you to send him a thousand pistoles. Well and good! replied the minister; you will furnish him accordingly, with my strict injunction not to be niggardly, but to encourage the prince in whatever pleasurable expenses his heart may prompt him to indulge.

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