CH. IV. -- Gil Blas gets into company with his fellows; they shew him a ready road to the reputation of wit, and impose on him a singular oath.
THOSE noblemen pursued this strain of conversation, till Don Matthias, about whose person I was fiddling all the while, was ready to go out. He then told me to follow him; and this bevy of fashionables set sail together for the tavern, whither Don Ferdinand de Gamboa proposed to conduct them. I began my march in the rear rank with three other valets; for each of the gentlemen had his own. I remarked with astonishment that these three servants copied their masters, and assumed the same follies. I introduced myself as a new comer. They returned my salute in form; and one of them, after having taken measure of me very accurately, said -- Brother, I perceive, by your gait, that you have never yet lived with a young nobleman. Alas! no, answered I, neither have I been long in Madrid. So it appears, replied he, you smell strong of the country. You seem timid and embarrassed; there is an hitch in your deportment. But no matter, we will soon wear off all stiffness, take my word for it. Perhaps you think better of me than I deserve, said I. No, resumed he, no; there is no such cub as we cannot lick into shape; assure yourself of that.
This specimen was enough to convince me that I had hearty fellows for my comrades, and that I could not be in better hands to initiate me into high life below-stairs. On our arrival at the tavern, we found an entertainment ready which Signor Don Ferdinand had been so provident as to order in the morning. Our masters sat down to table, and we arranged ourselves behind their chairs. The conversation was spirited and lively. My ears tingled to hear them. Their humour, their way of thinking, their mode of expression diverted me. What fire! what sallies of imagination! They appeared like a new order of beings. With the dessert, we set before them a great choice of the best wines in Spain, and left the room, to go to dinner in a little parlour, where our cloth was laid.
I was not long in discovering that the combatants in our lists had more to recommend them than appeared at first sight. They were not satisfied with aping the manners of their masters, but even copied their phrases; and these varlets gave such a facsimile, that bating a little vulgarity, they might have passed themselves off very well. I admired their free and easy carriage; still more was I charmed with their wit, but despaired of ever coming up to them in my own person. Don Ferdinand's servant, on the score of his master treating ours, did the honours; and, determined to do the thing genteelly, he called the landlord, and said to him -- Master tapster, give us ten bottles of your very best wine; and, as you have an happy knack of doing, make the gentlemen up stairs believe that they have drank them. With all my heart, answered the landlord; but, Master Gaspard, you know that Signor Don Ferdinand owes me for a good many dinners already. If through your kind intervention I could get some little matter on account . . . . Oh! interrupted the valet, do not be at all uneasy about your debt: I will take it upon myself; put it down to me. It is true that some unmannerly creditors have preferred legal measures to a reliance on our honour; but we shall take the first opportunity of obtaining a replevy, and will pay you without looking at your bill. To have my master on your books is like so many ingots of gold. The landlord brought us the wine, in spite of unmannerly creditors; and we drank to a speedy replevy. It was as good as a comedy to see us drinking each other's health every minute, under our masters' titles. Don Antonio's servant called Don Ferdinand's plain Gamboa, and Don Ferdinand's servant called Don Antonio's Centellés: they dubbed me Silva; and we kept pace in drunkenness, under these borrowed names, with the noblemen to whom they properly belonged.
Though my wit was less conspicuous than that of the other guests, they lost no opportunity of testifying their pleasure in my acquaintance. Silva, said one of our merriest soakers, we shall make something of you, my friend. I perceive that you have wit at will, if you did but know how to draw upon it. The fear of talking absurdly prevents you from throwing out at all; and yet it is only by a bold push that a thousand people now-a-days set themselves up for good companions. Do you wish to be bright? You have only to give the reins to your loquacity, and to venture indiscriminately on whatever comes uppermost: your blunders will pass for the eccentricities of genius. Though you should utter an hundred extravagances, let but a single good joke be packed up in the bundle, the nonsense shall be all forgotten, the witticism bandied about, and your talent be puffed into high repute. This is the happy method our masters have devised, and it ought to be adopted by all new candidates. Besides that I had but too strong a wish to pass for a clever fellow, the trick they taught me appeared so easy in the performance, that it ought not to be buried in obscurity. I tried it at once, and the fumes of the wine contributed to my success; that is to say, I talked at random, and had the good luck to strike out of much absurdity some flashes of merriment, very acceptable to my audience. This first essay inspired me with confidence. I redoubled my sprightliness, to sparkle in repartee; and chance gave a successful issue to my endeavours.
Well done! said my fellow-servant who had addressed me in the street, do not you begin to shake off your rustic manners? You have not been two hours in our company, and you are quite another creature: your improvement will be visible every day. This it is to wait on people of quality. It causes an elevation, which the mind can never attain under a plebeian roof. Doubtless, answered I -- and for that reason I shall henceforth dedicate my little talents to the nobility. That is bravely said, roared out Don Ferdinand's servant, half seas over, commoners are not entitled to possess such a fund of superior genius as exists in us. Come, gentlemen, let us make a vow never to colleague with any such beggarly fellows; let us swear to that by Styx. We laughed heartily at Gaspard's conceit: the proposal was received with applause: and we took this mock oath with our glasses in our hands.
Thus sat we at table till our masters were pleased to get up from it. This was at midnight; an outrageous instance of sobriety, in the opinion of my colleagues. To be sure, these noble lords left the tavern so early only to visit a celebrated wanton, lodging in the purlieus of the court, and keeping open house night and day for the votaries of pleasure. She was a woman from five and thirty to forty, still in the height of her charms, entertaining in her discourse, and so perfect a mistress in the art of pleasure, that she sold the waste and refuse of her beauty at a higher price than the first sample of the unadulterated article. She had always two or three other pieces of damaged goods in the house, who contributed not a little to the great concourse of nobility resorting thither. The afternoon was spent in play; then supper, and the night passed in drinking and making merry. Our masters staid till morning, and so did we, without thinking the time long; for, while they were toying with the mistresses, we attacked the maids. At length, we all parted when daylight peeped in on our festivities, and went to bed each of us at our separate homes.
My master getting up at his usual time, about noon, dressed himself. He went out. I followed him, and we paid a visit to Don Antonio Centellés, with whom we found one Don Alvaro de Acuna. He was an old gentleman, who gave lectures on the science of debauchery. The rising generation, if they wanted to qualify themselves for fine gentlemen, put themselves under his tuition. He moulded their ductile habits to pleasure, taught them to make a distinguished figure in the world, and to squander their substance: he had no qualms as to running out his own, for the deed was done. After these three blades had exchanged the compliments of the morning, Centellés said to my master -- In good faith, Don Matthias, you could not have come at a more lucky time. Don Alvar is come to take me with him to a dinner, given by a citizen to the Marquis de Zenette and Don Juan de Moncade; and you shall be of the party. And what is the citizen's name? said Don Matthias. Gregorio de Noriega, said Don Alvar, and I will describe the young man in two words. His father, a rich jeweller, is gone abroad, to attend the foreign markets, and left his son, at his departure, in the enjoyment of a large income. Gregorio is a blockhead, with a turn for every sort of extravagance, and an awkward hankering after the reputation of wit and fashion, in despite of nature. He has begged of me to give him a few instructions. I manage him completely; and can assure you, gentlemen, that I lead him a rare dance. His estate is rather deeply dipped already. I do not doubt it, exclaimed Centellés; I see the vulgar dog in an almshouse. Come, Don Matthias: let us honour the fellow with our acquaintance, and be in at the death of him. Willingly, answered my master, for I delight in seeing the fortune of these plebeian upstarts kicked over, when they affect to mix among us. Nothing, for instance, ever entertained me so much as the downfall of the toll-gatherer's son, whom play, and the vanity of figuring among the great, have stripped, till he has not a house over his head. Oh! as for that, replied Don Alvar, he deserves no pity, he is as great a coxcomb in his poverty as he was in his prosperity.
Centellés and my master accompanied Don Alvar to Gregorio de Noriega's party. We went there also, that is, Mogicon and myself; both in ecstasy at having an opportunity of spunging on a citizen, and pleasing ourselves with the thought of being in at the death of him. At our entrance, we observed several men employed in preparing dinner; and there issued from the ragouts they were taking up, a vapour which conciliated the palate through the medium of the nostrils. The Marquis de Zenette and Don Juan de Moncade were just come. The founder of the feast seemed a great simpleton. He aped the man of fashion with a most clumsy grace; a wretched copy of admirable originals, or, more properly, an idiot in the chair of wisdom and taste. Figure to yourself a man of this character in the centre of five bantering fellows, all intent on making a jest of him, and drawing him into ridiculous expenses. Gentlemen, said Don Alvar, after the first interchange of civilities, give me leave to introduce you to Signor Gregorio de Noriega, a most brilliant star in the hemisphere of fashion. He owns a thousand amiable qualities. Do you know that he has an highly cultivated understanding? Choose your own subject, he is equally at home in every branch, from the subtilty and closeness of logic, to the elementary science of the criss-cross-row. Oh! this is really too flattering, interrupted the scot and lot gentleman with a very uncouth laugh. I might, Signor Alvaro, put you to the blush as you have put me; for you may truly be termed a reservoir as it were, a common sewer of erudition. I had no intention, replied Don Alvaro, to draw upon myself so savoury an encomium; but truly, gentlemen, Signor Gregorio cannot fail of establishing a name in the world. As for me, said Don Antonio, what is so delightful in my eyes, far above the honours of logic or the criss-cross row, is the tasteful selection of his company. Instead of demeaning himself to the level of tradesmen, he associates only with the young nobility, and sets the expense at nought. There is an elevation of sentiment in this conduct which enchants me: and this is what you may truly call disbursing with taste and judgment.
These ironical speeches were only the preludes to a continual strain of banter. Poor Gregorio was attacked on all hands. The wits shot their bolts by turns, but they made no impression on the fool; on the contrary, he took all they said literally, and seemed highly pleased with his guests, as if they did him a favour by making him their laughing-stock. In short, he served them for a butt while they sat at table, which they did not quit during the afternoon, nor till late at night. We, as well as our masters, drank as we liked, so that the servants'-hall and the dining-room were in equally high order when we took our leave of the young jeweller.