CH. II. -- Gil Blas continues his journey, and arrives in safety at Oviedo. The condition of his family. His father's death, and its consequences.
FROM Valladolid we got to Oviedo in four days, without any untoward accident on the road, in spite of the proverb, which says, that robbers lay their ears to the ground, when pilgrims are going with rich offerings, and traders are riding with fat purses. It would have been a feasible, as well as a tempting speculation. Two tenants of a subterraneous abode might have presented an aspect to have frightened our doubloons into a surrender; for courage was not one of the qualities I had imbibed at court; and Bertrand, my mule-driver, seemed not to be of a temper to get his brains blown out in defending a purse into which he had no free ingress. Scipio was the only one of the party who was anything of a bully.
It was night when we came into town. Our lodgings were at an inn near my uncle, Gil Perez, the canon. I was very desirous of ascertaining the circumstances of my parents before my first interview with them; and, in order to gain that information, it was impossible to make my inquiries in a better channel than through my landlord and landlady, into the lines of whose faces you could not look without being satisfied that they knew every tittle of their neighbours' concerns. As it turned out, the landlord kenned me after a diligent perusal of my features, and cried out: By Saint Anthony of Padua! this is the son of the honest usher, Blas of Santillane. Ay, indeed! said the hostess; and so it is: without a single muscle altered! just for all the world that same little stripling Gil Blas, of whom we used to say that he was as saucy as he was high. It brings old times to my memory! when he used to come hither with his bottle under his arm, to fetch wine for his uncle's supper.
Madam, said I, you have a most inveterate memory; but for goodness' sake change the subject, and tell me the modern news of my family. My father and mother are doubtless in no very enviable situation. In good truth, you may say that, answered the landlady: you may rack your brains as long as you like, but you will never think of anything half so miserable as what they are suffering at this present moment. Gil Perez, good soul! is defunct all down one side by a stroke of the palsy, and the other half of him is little better than a corpse; we cannot expect him to last long: then your father, who went to live with his reverence a little while ago, is troubled with an inflammation of the lungs, and is standing, as a body may say, quavery-mavery between life and death; while your mother, who is not over and above hale and hearty herself, is obliged to nurse them both.
On this intelligence, which made me feel some compunctious yearnings of nature, I left Bertrand with my stud and baggage at the inn: then, with my secretary at my heels, who would not desert me in my time of need, I repaired to my uncle's house. The moment I came within my mother's reach, a natural emotion of maternal instinct unfolded to her who I was, before her eyes could possibly have run over the traces of my countenance. Son, said she, with a melancholy expression, after having embraced me, come and be present at your father's death; your visit is just in time to take in all the piteous circumstances of so deplorable an event. With this heart-rending reception, she led me by the hand into a chamber where the wretched Blas of Santillane, stretched on a comfortless bed, in cold and dismal accord with the thinness of his fortunes, was just entering on the last great act of human nature. Though surrounded by the shades of death, he was not quite unconscious of what was passing about him. My dearest friend, said my mother, here is your son Gil Blas, who entreats your forgiveness for all his undutiful behaviour, and is come to ask your blessing before you die. At these tidings my father opened his eyes, which where on the point of closing for ever: he fixed them upon me; and reading in my countenance, notwithstanding the awful brink on which he stood, that I was a sincere mourner for his loss, his feelings were recalled to sympathy by my sorrow. He even made an attempt to speak, but his strength was too much exhausted. I took one of his hands in mine, and while I bathed it with my tears, in speechless agony of soul, he breathed his last, as if he had only waited my arrival to pay the debt of nature, and wing his way to scenes of untried being.
This event had been too long present to my mother's mind to overwhelm her with any unparalleled affliction. Perhaps it sat more heavily on me than on her, though my father had never in his life given me any reason to feel for him as a father. But besides that mere filial instinct would have made me weep over his cold remains, I reproached myself with not having contributed to the comfort of his latter days; then, when I considered what a hard-hearted villain I had been, I seemed to myself like a monster of ingratitude, or rather like an impious parricide. My uncle, whom I afterwards saw lying at his length on another wretched couch, and in a most lamentable pickle, made me experience fresh agonies of upbraiding conscience. Unnatural son! said I, communing with my own uneasy thoughts, behold the chastisement of heaven upon thy sins, in the disconsolate condition of thy nearest relations. Hadst thou but thrown to them the superflux of that abundance, in which before thy imprisonment thou rolledst, thou mightest have procured for them those little comforts which thy uncle's ecclesiastical pittance was too scanty to furnish, and perhaps have lengthened out the term of thy father's life.
Gil Perez had fallen into a state of second childhood, and was, though numerically upon the list of the living, in every individual organ a mere corpse. His memory, nay, his very senses had retired from their allotted stations in his system. Bootless was it for me to strain him in my pious arms, and lavish outward tokens of affection on him: they might as well have been wasted on the desert air. To as little purpose did my mother ring in his unnerved ear, that I was his nephew Gil Blas; be gazed at me with a vacant, stupid stare, and gave neither sign nor answer. Had the ties of consanguinity and gratitude been all too weak, to awaken my tender sympathy for an uncle, to whom I owed the means of my first launch into the world, the impression of helpless dotage on my senses must have softened me into something like the counterfeit of virtuous emotion.
While this scene was passing, Scipio preserved a melancholy silence, sharing in all my sorrows, and mingling his sighs with mine in the chastised luxury of friendship. But concluding that my mother, after so long an absence, might wish to have some such conversation with me, as the presence of a stranger must rather repress than promote, I drew him aside, saying, Go, my good fellow, sit down quietly at the inn, and leave me here with my only surviving parent, who might consider your company as an intrusion, while talking over family affairs. Scipio withdrew, for fear of being a clog upon our confidence; and I sat down with my mother to an interchange of communication, which lasted all night. We reciprocally gave a faithful account of all that had happened to each of us, since my first sally from Oviedo. She related, in full measure and running over, all the petty insults, disappointments, and mortifications, which she had undergone in her pilgrimage from house to house as a duenna. A great number of these little anecdotes it would have hurt my pride that my secretary should have noted down in his biographical budget, though I had never concealed from him the ups and downs in the lottery of my own life. With all the respect I owe to my mother's sainted memory, the good lady had not the knack of going the shortest road to the end of a story; had she but pruned her own memoirs of all luxuriant circumstances, there would not have been materials for more than a tithe of her narrative.
At length she got to the end of her tether, and I began my career. With respect to my general adventures, I passed them over lightly; but when I came to speak of the visit which the son of Bertrand Muscada, the grocer of Oviedo, had paid me at Madrid, I enlarged with decent compunction on that dark article in the history of my life. I must frankly own, said I to my mother, that I gave that young fellow a very bad reception; and he, doubtless, in revenge, must have drawn a hideous outline of my moral features. He did you more than justice, I trust, answered she; for he told us that he found you so puffed and swollen with the good fortune thrust upon you by the prime minister, as scarcely to acknowledge him among your former acquaintance; and when he gave you a moving description of our miseries, you listened as if you had no interest in the tale, or knowledge of the parties. But as fathers and mothers can always find some clue for palliation in the conduct of their graceless children, we were loath to believe that you had so bad a heart. Your arrival at Oviedo justifies our favourable interpretation, and those tears which are now flowing down your cheeks, are so many pledges either of your innocence or your reformation.
Your constructions were too partial, replied I; there was a great deal of truth in young Muscada's report. When he came to see me all my faculties were engrossed by vanity and mammon; ambition, the prevailing devil which possessed me, left not a thought to throw away on the desolate condition of my parents. It therefore could be no wonder, if in such a disposition of mind I gave rather a freezing reception to a man who, accosting me in a peremptory style, took upon him to say, without mincing the matter, that it was well known I was as rich as a Jew, and therefore he advised me to send you a good round sum, seeing that you were very much put to your shifts: nay, he went so far as to reproach me, in phrase of more sincerity than good manners, with my unfeeling negligence of my family. His confounded personality stuck in my throat; so that losing my little stock of patience, I shoved him fairly by the shoulders out of my closet. It must be confessed that I took the administration of justice a little too much into my own hands, being judge and party in the same cause; neither was it proper that you should bear the brunt, because the grocer was a little anti-saccharine in his phraseology; nor was his advice the less pertinent or just, though couched in homely terms, or urged with plodding vulgarity.
All this came plump in the teeth of my conscience, the moment I had turned Muscada out of doors. The voice of natural instinct contrived to make its way; my duty to my parents brought the blood into my face; but it was the blush of shame for its neglect, and not the glow of triumph at its performance. Yet even my remorse can give me little credit in your eyes, since it was soon stifled in the fumes of avarice and ambition. But some time afterwards, having been safely lodged in the tower of Segovia by royal mandate, I fell dangerously ill there; and that timely remembrancer was the cause of bringing back your son to you. So true is it, that sickness and imprisonment were my best moral tutors; for they enabled nature to resume her rights, and weaned me effectually from the court. Henceforth all my dear delight is in solitude; and my only business in the Asturias is to entreat that you would share with me in the mild pleasures of a retired life. If you reject not my earnest petition, I will attend you to an estate of mine in the kingdom of Valencia, and we will live there together very comfortably. You are of course aware that I intended to take my father thither also; but since heaven has ordained it otherwise, let me at least have the satisfaction of affording an asylum to my mother, and making amends by all the attentions in my power for the fallow seasons in the former harvest of my filial duty.
I accept your kind intentions in very good part, said my mother; and would take the journey without hesitation, if I saw no obstacles in the way. But to desert your uncle in his present condition would be unpardonable; and I am too much accustomed to this part of the country, to like living elsewhere: nevertheless, as the proposal deserves to be maturely weighed, I will consider further of it at my leisure, At present, your father's funeral requires to be ordered and arranged. As for that, said I, we will leave it to the care of the young man whom you saw with me; he is my secretary, with as clever a head and as good a heart as you have often been acquainted with; let the business rest with him; it cannot be in better hands.
Hardly had I pronounced these words, when Scipio came back; for it was already broad day. He inquired whether he could be of any service in our present distresses. I answered that he was come just in time to receive some very important directions. As soon as he was made acquainted with the business in hand: A word to the wise! said he: the whole procession with its appropriate heraldry is already marshalled in this head of mine; you may trust me for a very pretty funeral. Have a care, said my mother, to make it plain and decent without anything like pomp or parade. It can scarcely be too humble for my husband, whom all the town knows to have been low in rank, and indigent in circumstances. Madam, replied Scipio, though he had been the meanest and most destitute of the human race, I would not bate one button in the array of his posthumous honours. My master's credit is at stake in the proper conduct of the ceremony; he has been in an ostensible situation under the Duke of Lerma, and his father ought to be buried with all the forms of state and nobility.
I thought exactly as my secretary did upon the subject; and even went so far as to bid him spare no expense on the occasion. A little leaven of vanity still fermented in the mass of my philosophy, and rose in my bosom with all the effervescence of its original lightness. I flattered myself that by lavishing posthumous honours on a father who had blessed the day of his decease by no lucrative bequest, I should instil into the conceptions of the bystanders a high sense of my generous nature. My mother, on her part, whatever airs of humility she might put on, had no dislike to seeing her husband carried out with due observance of funeral pomp and ceremony. We therefore left Scipio to do just as he pleased; and he, without a moment's delay, adopted all the necessary measures for the display of the undertaker's liveliest fancy.
The genius of that artist was called forth but too successfully. His emblems, devices, and draperies, were so ostentatious, as to disgust instead of cajoling the natives: every individual, whether of the town or the suburbs, whether high or low, rich or poor, felt shocked and insulted by this after-thought parade. This ministerial beggar on horseback, said one, can put his hand into his pocket for his father's funeral baked meats, but never found in his heart wherewithal to furnish his living table with common necessaries. It would have been much more to the purpose, said another, to have made the old gentleman's latter days comfortable, than to have wasted such thriftless sums on a post obit act of filial munificence. In short, quips of the brain and peltings of the tongue pattered round our execrated heads. It would have been well had the storm been only a whirlwind of passion, or hurricane of words; but we were all, Scipio, Bertrand, and myself, corporally admonished of our misdeeds, on our coming out of church; they abused us like pickpockets, made mouths and odious noises as we passed, and followed Bertrand at his heels to the inn with a copious volley of stones and mud. To disperse the mob which had collected before my uncle's house, my mother was obliged to shew herself at the window, and to declare publicly, that she was thoroughly satisfied with my proceedings. Another detachment had filed off to the stable-yard where my carriage stood, in the full determination of breaking it to pieces; and this they would inevitably have done, if the landlord and lady had not found some means of quieting their perturbed spirits, and turning them aside from their outrageous purpose.
All these affronts, so revolting to my dignity, the effect of the tales which the young grocer had been spreading about town, inspired me with such a thorough hatred for my native place, that I determined on quitting Oviedo almost immediately, though but for this bustle I might have made it my residence for some time. I announced my intention, with the reasons of it, to my mother, who, considering my uncouth reception as no very flattering compliment to herself, did not urge my longer stay among people so little inclined to treat me civilly. The only point remaining now to be discussed was her future destiny and provision. My dear mother, said I, since my uncle stands so much in need of your attendance, I will no longer urge you to go along with me; but, as his days seem likely to be very few on earth, you must promise to come and take up your abode with me at my farm, as soon as the last duties are performed to his honoured remains.
I shall make no such promise, answered my mother, for I mean to pass the remnant of my days in the Asturias, and in a state of perfect independence. Will you not on all occasions, replied I, be absolute mistress in my household? May be so, and may be not! rejoined she: you have only to fall in love with some flirt of a girl, and then you will marry: then she will be my daughter-in-law, and I shall be her stepmother; and then we shall live together as step mothers and daughters-in-law usually do. Your prognostics, said I, are fetched from a great distance. I have not at present the most remote intention of entering into the happy state: but even though such a whim should take possession of my brain, I will pledge myself for instructing my wife betimes in an implicit submission to your will and pleasure. That is giving security, without the means of making good your contract, replied my mother: you would scarcely be able to justify bail. I would not even swear that in our sparring-matches, you might not take your wife's part in preference to mine, however ill she might behave, or however unreasonably she might argue.
You talk very excellent sense, madam, cried my secretary, coming in for his share of the conversation: I think just as you do, that docility is about as much the virtue of a donkey as of a daughter-in-law. As the matter stands, that there may be no difference of opinion between my master and you, since you are absolutely determined to live asunder, you in the Asturias, and he in the kingdom of Valencia, he must allow you an annuity of a hundred pistoles, and send me hither every year for the payment. By thus arranging matters, mother and son will be very good friends, with an interval of two hundred leagues between them. The parties concerned fell in at once with the proposal: I paid the first year in advance, and stole out of Oviedo the next morning before dawn, for fear of vying with Saint Stephen in popular favour. Such were the charms of my return to my native place. An admirable lesson this for those successful upstarts, who having gone abroad to make their fortunes, come home to be the purse-proud tyrants of their birth-place.