CH. XII. -- Gil Blas acquires a relish for the theatre, and takes a full swing of its pleasures, but soon becomes disgusted.
THE party sat at table till it was time to go to the theatre. I went after them, and saw the play again that evening. I took such delight in it, that I was for attending every day. I never missed, and by degrees got accustomed to the actors. Such is the force of habit. I was particularly delighted with those who were most artificial and unnatural; nor was I singular in my taste.
The beauties of composition affected me much on the same principle as the excellence of representation. There were some pieces with which I was enraptured. I liked, among others, those which brought all the cardinals or the twelve peers of France upon the stage. I got hold of striking passages in these incomparable performances. I recollect that in two days I learnt by heart a whole play, called, The Queen of Flowers. The Rose, who was the queen, had the Violet for her maid of honour, and the Jessamin for her prime minister. I could conceive nothing more elegant or refined: such productions seemed to be the triumph of our Spanish wit and invention.
I was not content to store my memory and discipline my mind with the choicest selections from these dramatic masterpieces: but I was bent on polishing my taste to the highest perfection. To secure this grand object, I listened with greedy ears to every word which fell from the lips of the players. If they commended a piece, I was ravished by it: but suppose they pronounced it bad? why, then I maintained that it was infernal stuff. I conceived that they must determine the merits of a play, as a jeweller the water of a diamond. And yet the tragedy by Pedro de Moya was eminently successful, though they had predicted its entire miscarriage. This, however, was no disparagement of their critical skill in my estimation; and I had rather believe the audience to be divested of common sense, than doubt the infallibility of the company. But they assured me, on all hands, that their judgments were usually confirmed by the rule of contraries. It seemed to be a maxim with them, to set their faces point blank against the taste of the public; and as a proof of this, there were a thousand cases in point of unexpected successes and failures. All these testimonies were scarcely sufficient to undeceive me.
I shall never forget what happened one day at the first representation of a new comedy. The performers had pronounced it uninteresting and tedious; they had even prophesied that it would not be heard to the end. Under this impression, they got through the first act, which was loudly applauded. This was very astonishing! They played the second act; the audience liked it still better than the first. The actors were confounded. What the devil, said Rosimiro, this comedy succeeds! At last they went on in the third act, which rose as a third act ought to rise. I am quite thrown upon my back, said Ricardo; we thought this piece would not be relished; and all the world are mad after it. Gentlemen, said one of the players archly, it is because we happened accidentally to overlook all the wit.
From this time I held my opinion no longer of the players as competent judges, and began to appreciate their merit more truly than they had estimated that of the authors. All the lampoons which were current about them were fully justified. The actors and actresses ran riot on the applauses of the town, and stood so high in their own conceit, as to think that they conferred a favour by appearing on the boards. I was shocked at their public misconduct; but unfortunately reconciled myself too easily to their private manners, and plunged into debauchery. How could I do otherwise? Every word they uttered was poison in the ears of youth, and every scene that was presented, an alluring picture of corruption. Had I been a stranger to what passed with Casilda, with Constance, and with the other actresses, Arsenia's house alone would have been sufficient for my ruin. Besides the old noblemen of whom I have spoken, there came thither young debauchees of fashion, who forestalled their inheritances by the disinterested mediation of money-lenders: and sometimes we had officers under government, who were so far from receiving fees, as at their public boards, that they paid most exorbitant ones for the privilege of mixing with such worshipful society.
Florimonde, who lived at next door, dined and supped with Arsenia every day. Their long intimacy surprised every one. Coquets were not thought usually to maintain so good an understanding with each other. It was concluded that they would quarrel, sooner or late; about some paramour; but such reasoners could not see into the hearts of these exemplary friends. They were united in the bonds of indissoluble love. Instead of harbouring jealousy, like other women, they had everything in common. They had rather divide the plunder of mankind, than childishly fall out, and contend for trumpery, as hearts and affections.
Laura, after the example of these two illustrious partners, turned the fresh season of youth to the best advantage. She had told me that I should see strange doings. And yet I did not take up the jealous part. I had promised to adopt the principles of the company on that score. For some days I kept my thoughts to myself. I only just took the liberty of asking her the names of the men whom she favoured with her private ear. She always told me that they were uncles or cousins. From what a prolific family was she sprung! King Priam had no luck in propagation, compared with her ancestors. Nor did this precious abigail confine herself to her uncles and cousins: she went now and then to lay a trap for unwary aliens, and personate the widow of quality under the auspices of the discreet old dowager above mentioned. In short Laura, to hit off her character exactly, was just as young, just as pretty, and just as loose as her mistress, who had no other advantage over her than that of figuring in a more public capacity.
I was borne down by the torrent for three weeks, and ran the career of dissipation in my turn. But I must at the same time say for myself, that in the midst of pleasure I frequently felt the still small voice of conscience, arising from the impression of a serious education, which mixed gall in the Circean cup. Riot could not altogether get the better of remorse: on the contrary, the pangs of the last grew keener with the more shameful indulgence of the first; and, by a happy effect of my temperament, the disorders of a theatrical life began to make me shudder. Ah! wretch, said I to myself, is it thus that you make good the hopes of your family? Is it not enough to have thwarted their pious intentions, by not following your destined course of life as an instructor of youth? Need your condition of a servant hinder you from living decently and soberly? Are such monsters of iniquity fit companions for you? Envy, hatred, and avarice are predominant here; intemperance and idleness have purchased the fee-simple there: the pride of some is aggravated into the most barefaced impudence, and modesty is turned out of doors, by the common consent of all. The business is settled: I will not live any longer with the seven deadly sins.