CH. VIII. -- The meeting of Gil Blas and his companion with a man soaking crusts of bread at a spring, and the particulars of their conversation.
SIGNOR Diego de la Fuenta related some other adventures which had since happened to him; but they were so little worthy of preservation, that I shall pass them by in silence. Yet there was no getting rid of the recital, which was tedious enough: it lasted as far as Ponte de Duero. We halted in that town the remainder of the day. Our commons at the inn consisted of a vegetable soup and a roast hare, whose genus and species we took especial pains to verify. At daybreak on the following morning we resumed our journey, after having replenished our flask with some very tolerable wine, and our wallet with some pieces of bread, and half the hare we had left at supper.
When we had gone about two leagues we waxed hungry; and, espying at about two hundred yards from the high road some spreading trees, which threw an agreeable shade over the plain, we made up to the spot, and rested on our arms. There we met with a man from seven to eight and twenty, who was dipping crusts of bread into a spring. He had a long sword lying by him on the grass, with a soldier's knapsack, of which he had eased his shoulders. We thought his air and person better than his attire. We accosted him with civility; and he returned our salutation. He then offered us his crusts, and asked with a smile if we would take potluck with him. We answered in the affirmative, provided he had no objection to our clubbing our own breakfast, by way of making the meal more substantial. He agreed to it with the utmost readiness, and we immediately produced our provisions; which were not unacceptable to the stranger. What is all this, gentlemen, exclaimed he in a transport of joy, here is ammunition for an army! By your forecast, you must be commissaries or quartermasters. I do not travel with so much contrivance, for my part; but depend a good deal on the chances of the road. At the same time, though appearances may be against me, I can say, without vanity, that I sometimes make a very brilliant figure in the world. Would you believe that princely honours are commonly bestowed on me, and that I have guards in attendance? I comprehend you, said Diego; you mean to tell us, you are a player. You guess right, replied the other; I have been an actor for these fifteen years at least. From my very infancy, I was sent on the boards in children's parts. To deal freely, rejoined the barber, shaking his head, I do not believe a word of it. I know the players; those gentry do not travel on foot, like you, nor do they mess with St Anthony. I doubt whether you are anything better than a candle-snuffer. You may, quoth the son of Thespis, think of me as you please; but my parts, for all that, are in the first line; I play the lovers. If that be the case, said my companion, I wish you much joy, and am delighted that Signor Gil Blas and myself have the honour of breakfasting with so eminent a character.
We then began to pick up our crumbs, and to gnaw the precious relics of the hare, bestowing such hearty smacks upon the bottle, as to empty it very shortly. We were all three so deeply engaged in the great affair of eating, that we said very little till we had finished, when we resumed our conversation. I wonder, said the barber to the player, that you should be so much out at elbows. For a theatrical hero, you have but a needy exterior! I beg pardon if I speak rather freely. Rather freely! exclaimed the actor; Ah! by my troth, you are not yet acquainted with Melchior Zapata. Heaven be praised, I have no mind to see things in a wrong light. You do me a pleasure by speaking so confidently: for I love to unbosom myself without reserve. I honestly own I am not rich. Here, pursued he, showing us his doublet lined with playbills, this is the common stuff which serves me for linings; and if you are curious to see my wardrobe, you shall not be disappointed. At the same time he took out of his knapsack a dress, laced with tarnished frippery, a shabby head-dress for an hero, with an old plume of feathers; silk stockings full of holes, and red morocco shoes a great deal the worse for wear. You see, said he again, that I am very little better than a beggar. That is astonishing, replied Diego: then you have neither wife nor daughter? I have a very handsome young wife, rejoined Zapata, and yet I might just as well be without her. Look with awe on the lowering aspect of my horoscope. I married a personable actress, in the hope that she would not let me die of hunger; and, to my cost, she is cursed with incorruptible chastity. Who the devil would not have been taken in as well as myself? There was but one virtuous princess in a whole strolling company, and she, plague take her! fell into my hands. It was throwing with bad luck most undoubtedly, said the barber. But then, why did not you look out for an actress in the regular theatre at Madrid? You would have been sure of your mark. You are perfectly in the right, replied the stroller; but the mischief is, we underlings dare not raise our thoughts to those illustrious heroines. It is as much as an actor of the prince's company can venture on; nay, some of them are obliged to match with citizens' daughters. Happily for our fraternity, citizens' daughters now-a-days contract theatrical notions; and you may often meet with characters among them, to the full as eccentric as any bona roba of the green-room.
Well! but have you never thought, said my fellow-traveller, of getting an engagement in that company? Is it necessary to be a Roscius for that purpose? That is very well of you! replied Melchior, you are a wag, with your Roscius! There are twenty performers. Ask the town what it thinks of them, and you will hear a pretty character of their acting. More than half of them deserve to carry a porter's knot. Yet for all that, it is no easy matter to get upon the boards. Bribery or interest must make up for the defect of talent. I ought to know what I say since my debut at Madrid, where I was hissed and cat-called as if the devil had got among the grimalkins, though I ought to have been received with thunders of applause; for I whined, ranted, and offered all sorts of violence to nature's modesty: nay, I went so far as to clench my list at the heroine of the piece; in a word, I adopted the conceptions of all the great performers; and yet that same audience condemned by bell, book, and candle in me, what was thought to be the first style of playing in them. Such is the force of prejudice! So that, being no favourite with the pit, and not having wherewithal to insinuate myself into the good graces of the manager, I am on my return to Zamora. There we shall all huddle together again, my wife and my fellow-comedians, who are making but little of the business. I wish we may not be obliged to beg our way out of town; a catastrophe of too frequent occurrence!
At these words, up rose the stage-struck hero, slung across him his knapsack and his sword, and made his exit with due theatric pomp: Farewell, gentlemen; may all the gods shower all their bounties on your heads! And you, answered Diego with corresponding emphasis, may you find your wife at Zamora, softened down in her relentless virtue, and in comfortable keeping. No sooner had Signor Zapata turned upon his heel, than he began gesticulating and spouting as he went along. The barber and myself immediately began hissing, to remind him of his first appearance at Madrid. The goose grated harsh upon his tympanum; he took it for a repetition of signals from his old friends. But looking behind him, and seeing that we were diverting ourselves at his expense, far from taking offence at this merry conceit of ours, he joined with good humour in the joke, and went his way laughing as hard as he could. On our part, we returned the compliment in kind. After this, we got again into the high road, and pursued our journey.