CH. V. -- Gil Blas becomes the darling of the fair sex, and makes an interesting acquaintance.
AFTER some hours' sleep I got up in fine spirits; and calling the advice of Melendez to mind, went, till my master was stirring, to pay my court to our steward, whose vanity was rather flattered by this attention. He received me with a gracious air, and inquired how I was reconciled to the habits and manners of the young nobility. I answered, that they were strange to me as yet, but that use and good example might work wonders in the end.
Use and good example did work wonders, and that right soon. My temper and conduct were quite altered. From a discreet, sober lad, I got to be a lively, heedless merry-andrew. Don Antonio's servant paid me a compliment on my transformation, and told me that there wanted nothing but a tender interest in the lovely part of the creation to shine like a new star dropped from the heavens. He pointed out to me that it was an indispensable requisite in the character of a pretty fellow, that all our set were well with some fine woman or other; and that he himself; to his own share, engrossed the favours of two beauties in high life. I was of opinion that the rascal lied. Master Mogicon, said I, you are doubtless a very dapper, lively little fellow, with a modest assurance; but still I do not comprehend how women of quality, not having your sweet person on their own private establishments, should run the risk of being detected in an intrigue with a footman out of doors. Oh! as for that, answered he, they do not know my condition. To my master's wardrobe, and even to his name, am I indebted for these conquests. I will tell you how it is. I dress myself up as a young nobleman, and assume the manners of one. I go to public places, and tip the wink first to one woman and then to another, till I meet with one who returns the signal. Her I follow, and find means to speak with her. I take the name of Don Antonio Centellés. I plead for an assignation, the lady is squeamish about it; I am pressing, she is kind, et caetera. Thus it is, my fine fellow, that I contrive to carry on my intrigues, and I would have you profit by the hint.
I was too ambitious of shining like a new star dropped from the heavens, to turn a deaf ear to such counsel; besides, there was about me no aversion to an amour. I therefore laid a plan to disguise myself as a young nobleman, and look out for adventures of gallantry. There was a risk in assuming my masquerade dress at home, lest it might be observed. I took a complete suit from my master's wardrobe, and made it up into a bundle, which I carried to a barber's, where I thought I could dress and undress conveniently. There I tricked myself out to the best advantage. The barber too lent a helping hand to my attire. When we thought it adjusted to a nicety, I sauntered towards Saint Jerome's meadow, whence I felt morally certain that I should not return without making an impression. But I could not even get thither, without a proof of my own attractions.
As I was crossing a bye-street, a lady of genteel figure, elegantly dressed, came out of a small house, and got into an hired carriage standing at the door. I stopped short to look at her, and bowed significantly, so as to convey an intimation that my heart was not insensible. On her part, to show me that her face was not less lovely than her person, she lifted up her veil for a moment. In the mean time the coach set off, and I stood stock still in the street, not a little stiffened at this vision. A vastly pretty woman! said I to myself, bless us! this is just what is wanting to make me perfectly accomplished. If the two ladies who share Mogicon between them are equally handsome, the scoundrel is in luck! I should be delighted with her for a mistress. Ruminating on these things, I looked by chance towards the house whence that lovely creature had glided, and saw at a window on the ground floor an old woman beckoning me to come in.
I flew like lightning into the house, and found, in a very neat parlour, this venerable and wary matron, who, taking me for a marquis at least, dropped a low curtsey, and said -- I doubt not, my lord, but you must have a bad opinion of a woman who, without the slightest acquaintance, beckons you out of the street; but you will perhaps judge more favourably of me when you shall know that I do not pay that compliment promiscuously. You look like a man of fashion! You are perfectly in the right, my old girl, interrupted I, stretching out my right leg, and throwing the weight of my body on my left hip; mine is, vanity apart, one of the best families in Spain. It must be so by your looks, replied she, and I will fairly own that I delight in doing a kindness to people of quality, that is my weak side. I watched you through my window. You looked very earnestly at a lady who has just left me. Perhaps you may have taken a fancy to her? tell me so plainly. By the honour of my house, answered I, she has shot me through the heart. I never saw anything so tempting; a most divine creature! Do bring us acquainted, my dear, and rely on my gratitude. It is worth while to do these little offices for us of the beau monde; they are better paid than our bills.
I have told you once for all, replied the old woman, I am entirely devoted to people of condition; it is my passion to be useful to them: I receive here, for example, a certain class of ladies, whom appearances prevent from seeing their favourites at home. I lend them my house, and thus the warmth of their constitutions is indulged, without risk to their characters. Vastly well, quoth I, and you have just done that kindness to the lady in question? No, answered she, this is a young widow of quality, in want of an admirer; but so difficult in her choice, that I do not know whether you will do for her, however great your requisites may be. I have already introduced to her three well-furnished gallants, but she turned up her nose at them. Oh! egad, my life, exclaimed I confidently, you have only to stick me in her skirts, I will give you a good account of her, take my word for it. I long to have a grapple with a beauty of such peremptory demands, they have not yet fallen in my way. Well, then, said the old woman, you have only to come hither to-morrow at the same hour, your curiosity shall be satisfied. I will not fail, rejoined I; we shall see whether a young nobleman can miss a conquest.
I returned to the little barber's without looking for other adventures, but deeply interested in the event of this. Therefore, on the following day, I went, in splendid attire, to the old woman's an hour sooner than the time. My lord, said she, you are punctual, and I take it kindly. To be sure the game is worth the chase. I have seen our young widow, and we have had a good deal of talk about you. Not a word was to be said; but I have taken such a liking to you that I cannot hold my tongue. You have made yourself agreeable, and will soon be a happy man. Between ourselves, the lady is a relishing morsel, her husband did not live long with her; he glided away like a shadow: she has all the merit of an absolute girl. The good old lady, no doubt, meant one of those clever girls, who contrive not to live single, though they live unmarried.
The heroine of the assignation came soon in an hired carriage, as on the day before, dressed very magnificently. As soon as she came into the room, I led off with five or six coxcombical bows, accompanied by the most fashionable grimaces. After this, I went up to her with a very familiar air, and said -- My adored angel, you behold a gentleman of no mean rank, whom your charms have undone. Your image, since yesterday, has taken complete possession of my fancy; you have turned a duchess neck and heels out of my heart, who was beginning to establish a footing there. The triumph is too glorious for me, answered she, throwing off her veil, but still my transports are not without alloy. Young men of fashion love variety, and their hearts are, they say, bandied about from one to the other like a piece of base money. Ah! my sovereign mistress, replied I, let us leave the future to shift for itself; and think only of the present. You are lovely, I am in love. If my passion is not hateful to you, let it take its course at random. We will embark like true sailors, set the storms and shipwreck of a long voyage at defiance, and only take the fair weather of the time present into the account.
In finishing this speech, I threw myself in raptures at the feet of my nymph; and the better to hit off my assumed character, pressed her with some little peevishness not to delay my bliss. She seemed a little touched by my remonstrances, but thought it too soon to yield, and giving me a gentle rebuff -- Hold, said she, you are too importunate, this is like a rake. I fear you are but a loose young fellow. For shame, madam, exclaimed I; can you set your face against what women of the first taste and condition encourage? A prejudice against what is vulgarly called vice may be all very well for citizens' wives. That is decisive, replied she, there is no resisting so forcible a plea. I see plainly that with men of your order dissimulation is to no purpose; a woman must meet you half way. Learn then your victory, added she with an appearance of disorder, as if her modesty suffered by the avowal; you have inspired me with sentiments such as are new to my heart, and I only wait to know who you are, that I may take you for my acknowledged lover. I believe you a young lord and a gentleman, yet there is no trusting to appearances; and however prepossessed I may be in your favour, I would not give away my affections to a stranger.
I recollected at the moment how Don Antonio's servant had got out of a similar perplexity; and determining, after his example, to pass for my master -- Madam, said I to my dainty widow, I will not excuse myself from telling you my name, it is one that will not disparage its owner. Have you ever heard of Don Matthias de Silva? Yes, replied she; indeed I have seen him with a lady of my acquaintance. Though considerably improved in impudence, I was a little troubled by this discovery. Yet I rallied my forces in an instant, and extricated myself with a happy presence of mind. Well then, my fair one, retorted I, the lady of your acquaintance . . . . knows a lord . . . . of my acquaintance . . . . and I am of his acquaintance; of his own family, since you must know it. His grandfather married the sister-in-law of my father's uncle. You see we are very near relations. My name is Don Caesar. I am the only son of the great Don Ferdinand de Ribera, slain fifteen years ago, in a battle on the frontiers of Portugal. I could give you all the particulars of the action; it was a devilish sharp one . . . . but to fight it over again would be losing the precious moments of mutual love.
After this discourse I got to be importunate and impassioned, but without bringing matters at all forwarder. The favours which my goddess winked at my snatching, tended only to make me languish for what she was more chary of. The tyrant got back to her coach, which was waiting at the door. Nevertheless, I withdrew, well enough pleased with my success, though it still fell short of the only perfect issue. If said I to myself, I have obtained indulgences but by halves, it is because this lady, forsooth, is a high-born dame, and thinks it beneath her quality to play the very woman at the first interview. The pride of pedigree stands in the way of my advancement just now, but in a few days we shall be better acquainted. To be sure, it did not once come into my head. that she might be one of those cunning gipsies always on the catch. Yet I liked better to look at things on the right side than on the wrong, and thus maintained a favourable opinion of my widow. We had agreed at parting to meet again on the day after the morrow; and the hope of arriving at the summit of my wishes gave me a foretaste of the pleasures with which I tickled my fancy.
With my brain full of joyous traces, I returned to my barber. Having changed my dress, I went to attend my master at the tennis-court. I found him at play, and saw that he won; for he was not one of those impenetrable gamesters who make or mar a fortune without moving a muscle. In prosperity he was flippant and overbearing, but quite peevish on the losing side. He left the tennis-court in high spirits, and went for the Prince's Theatre. I followed him to the boxdoor, then putting a ducat into my hand-- Here, Gil Blas, said he, as I have been a winner to-day, you shall not be the worse for it; go, divert yourself with your friends, and come to me about midnight at Arsenia's, where I am to sup with Don Alexo Segiar. He then went in, and I stood debating with whom I should disburse my ducat, according to the pious will of the founder. I did not muse long. Clarin, Don Alexo's servant, just then came in my way. I took him to the next tavern, and we amused ourselves there till midnight. Thence we repaired to Arsenia's house, where Clarin had orders to attend. A little footboy opened the door, and showed us into a room down-stairs, where Arsenia's waiting-woman, and the lady who held the same office about Florimonde, were laughing ready to split their sides, while their mistresses were above-stairs with our masters.
The addition of two jolly fellows just come from a good supper, could not be unwelcome to abigails, and to the abigails of actresses too; but what was my astonishment when in one of these lowly ladies I discovered my widow, my adorable widow, whom I took for a countess or a marchioness! She appeared equally amazed to see her dear Don Caesar de Ribera metamorphosed into the valet of a beau. However, we looked at one another without being out of countenance; indeed, such a tingling sensation of laughter came over us both, as we could not help indulging in. After which Laura, for that was her name, drawing me aside while Clarin was speaking to her fellow-servant, held out her hand to me very kindly, and said in a low voice -- Accept this pledge, Signor Don Caesar; mutual congratulations are more to the purpose than mutual reproaches, my friend. You topped your part to perfection, and I was not quite contemptible in mine. What say you? confess now, did not you take me for one of those precious peeresses who are fond of a little smuggled amusement? It is even so, answered I, but whoever you are, my empress, I have not changed my sentiments with my paraphernalia. Accept my services in good part, and let the valet-de-chambre of Don Matthias consummate what Don Caesar has so happily begun. Get you gone, replied she, I like you ten times better in your natural than in your artificial character. You are as a man what I am as a woman, and that is the greatest compliment I can pay you. You are admitted into the number of my adorers. We have no longer any need of the old woman as a blind, you may come and see me whenever you like. We theatrical ladies are no slaves to form, but live higgledy-piggledy with the men. I allow that the effects are sometimes visible, but the public wink hard at our irregularities; the drama's patrons, as you well know, give the drama's laws, and absolve us from all others.
We went no further, because there were bystanders. The conversation be came general, lively, jovial, inclining to loose jokes, not very carefully wrapped up. We all of us bore a bob. Arsenia's attendant above all, my amiable Laura, was very conspicuous; but her wit was so extremely nimble, that her virtue could never overtake it. Our masters and the actresses on the floor above, raised incessant peals of laughter, which reached us in the regions below; and probably the entertainment was much alike with the celestials and the infernals. If all the knowing remarks had been written down, which escaped from the philosophers that night assembled at Arsenia's, I really think it would have been a manual for the rising generation. Yet we could not arrest the chaste moon in her progress; the rising of that blab, the sun, parted us. Clarin followed the heels of Don Alexo, and I went home with Don Matthias.