CH. VI. -- Gil Blas goes to the play at Grenada. His surprise at seeing one of the actresses, and what happened thereupon.
No sooner had Garcias rid the room of his presence, than two gentlemen came in, extremely well dressed, and took their seats close by me. They began talking about the players of the Grenada company, and about a new piece which just then had a great run. According to their account, it was quite the town talk. Nothing would do for me, but to go and see it that very day. I had never been at the play since my residence at Grenada. As I had lived nearly the whole time in the archbishop's palace, where all such profane shews were condemned as uncanonical, I had been cut off from every recreation of that sort. All my knowledge of men and manners was drawn from homilies!
I repaired therefore to the theatre at the appointed hour, and found a very full house. All around me, discussions were going on about the piece before the curtain drew up; and there was not a soul in the numerous assembly but had some remark to make upon it. One liked it, another could not bear it. Do not you think the dialogue is particularly happy? said a candid critic on my right. Was there ever such miserable stuff! cried a snarling critic on my left. In good truth, if bad authors abound, it must be admitted that the public are at variance about what is good and what is bad: but the bad judges have a right to be pleased for their money; and as they far outnumber the good ones, their favourite writers can never want employment. When one only considers through what an ordeal dramatic poets have to pass, it is a matter of wonder that any should be found hardy enough at once to contend against the ignorance of the multitude, and the random shot of those self-created guides in matters of taste, who always pretend to lead the blindness of the public judgment, and too frequently push it into the mire of absurdity.
At length the buffoon of the piece came forward by way of prologue. As soon as his grotesque countenance was visible, there was a general clapping of hands; a sure indication of his being one of those spoiled actors, who are allowed to take any liberties with the pit, and to be applauded through thick and thin, in fact, this player neither opened his lips, nor moved a muscle, without exciting the most extravagant raptures. He would have performed better, had he been less conscious what a favourite he was. But he presumed on that circumstance most abominably. I observed that he sometimes forgot what was set down for him, and took the licence of adding to his part out of his own free fancy; a common cause of complaint against low comedians, which, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve. Would the audience but receive such mirth with hisses, instead of crying bravo, they might restrain the absurd practice, and purge the stage from barbarism.
Some of the other performers were greeted with the usual tokens on their entrance, and particularly an actress who played the chambermaid. There was something about her which more than usually attracted my attention; and language must sink under the labour of expressing my astonishment at tracing the features of Laura, that fair, that chaste, that inexpressible she, whom I supposed to be still at Madrid, warbling in one key, with hands, sides, voice, and mind incorporate with Arsenia. But there could be no doubt of her identity. The kick in her gallop, the leer in her eye, and the tripping pertness of her tongue, all conspired in evidence that there could be no mistake. Yet, as if I had refused belief to the affidavit of my own eyes and ears, I asked her name of a gentleman who was sitting beside me. What the deuce! Why, where do you come from? said he. You must unquestionably be a new importation, not to have seen or heard of the divine Estella.
The likeness was too perfect for me to be mistaken. It was easy to comprehend why Laura, changing her sphere of action, changed her name also; wherefore from curiosity to know how matters stood with her, since the public always pry into the most private concerns of theatrical persons, I inquired of the same man whether this Estella had any particular affair of gallantry on her hands. He informed me that for the last two months there had been a great Portuguese nobleman at Grenada, his name was the Marquis de Marialva, who had laid out a great deal of money upon her. He might have told me more, if I had not been afraid of becoming troublesome with my questions. I was better employed in musing on the information this good gentleman had given me, than in attending to the play; and if any one had asked me what it was all about, when the piece was over, I should have been puzzled for an answer. I could do nothing but decline Laura and Estella through all cases and numbers; till at length I boldly made up my mind to call at her house the next day. Not but there was some risk as to the reception she might give me: it might be suspected, without excess of modesty, that my appearance would give her no great pleasure in the high tide of her affairs; nor was it at all improbable that so good an actress, to revenge herself on a man, with whom certainly she had an account to settle, might look strange, and swear she had never seen his face before. Yet did none of these apprehensions deter me from my venture. After a light supper, for all the meals at my eating-house were regulated on principles of economy and temperance, I withdrew to my chamber with an anxious longing for the next day.
My sleep was short and interrupted; so that I got up by daybreak. But as it was to be recollected that a mistress in high keep was not likely to be visible early in the morning, I passed three or four hours in dressing, shaving, powdering, and perfuming. It was my business to present myself before her in a trim, not to put her to the blush at acknowledging my acquaintance. I sallied forth about ten o'clock, and knocked at her door, after having inquired her address at the theatre. She was living on the first floor of a large and elegant house. I told a chambermaid who opened the door to me, that a young man wanted to speak with her lady. The chambermaid went in to give my message, when all at once I heard her mistress call out, not in the best-tempered tone in the world, Who is the young man? What does he want? Shew him up stairs.
This was a hint to me that my time was ill chosen; that probably her Portuguese lover was at her toilette, and that she spoke so loud, with the laudable design of convincing him that she was not a sort of girl to allow of any impertinent intruders. This conjecture of mine turned out to be the fact; the Marquis de Marialva lounged away almost every morning with her: I had made up my mind to be kicked down-stairs by way of welcome; but that admirable actress, never forgetting her cue, ran forward with open arms at the sight of me, exclaiming: Ah! my dear brother, is it you that I behold? On the strength of so near a kindred, she was no niggard of her embraces; but recollected her self so far as to say, turning round to the Portuguese, My lord, you must excuse me if nature will put in her claim, and trench upon good breeding. After three years of absence, I cannot see a brother once again, whom I love so tenderly, without expressing my feelings in all their warmth. Come! my dear Gil Blas, continued she, addressing me afresh, tell me some news of the family: in what circumstances did you leave it?
This whimsical scene disconcerted me at first; but I was not long in seeing through Laura's intention; and playing up to her with a spirit scarcely less than her own, answered according to the plot: Heaven be praised, sister, all our good folks are in perfect health, and well in the world. I make no doubt, resumed she, but you must be very much surprised to find me an actress in Grenada; but hear me first and blame me afterwards. It is three years, as you may recollect, since my father thought to have established me advantageously in marriage with Don Antonio Coello, an officer in the service, who took me from the Asturias to Madrid, his native place. Six months after our arrival, he got into an affair of honour in consequence of his violent temper. Some attentions incautiously paid to me were the cause of the affray, and his antagonist was killed. This gentle man was of a family high in rank and interest. My husband, who though well born, had very few connections, made his escape into Catalonia with every thing he could get together in jewels and ready money. He embarked at Barcelona, went over into Italy, enlisted in the Venetian service, and finally lost his life in the Morea, fighting against the Turks. In the mean time, a landed estate which constituted our whole revenue was confiscated, and I was left a widow with very little for my support. What was to be done in so pressing an emergency? There was nothing left to pay my travelling expenses back into the Asturias. And then what should I have done there? I should have got nothing from my family but a long string of condolences, which would have furnished me neither with food nor with raiment. On the other hand, I had been too well brought up to fall into those courses, into which too many poor young women are betrayed for the sake of a scandalous subsistence. There was but one thing remaining for me to determine on. I turned actress to preserve my morals.
So tingling a sense of ridicule came over me, when Laura wound up her romance with this pious motive for turning actress, that I could scarcely refrain from relieving myself by a fit of laughter. But gravity was of too much consequence to be dispensed with; and I said to her with an air the counterpart of her own -- My dear sister, I entirely approve of your conduct, and am heartily glad to meet with you at Grenada, and moreover settled on so respectable a footing.
The Marquis de Marialva, who had not lost a word of all these fine speeches, swallowed down blindfold whatever Don Antonio's widow thought fit to drench his credulity with. He took part in the conversation too, and asked me whether I had any fixed employment in Grenada or elsewhere, I paused for a moment to consider whether and after what manner I should lie; but as there seemed no need in this case to draw on my invention, I told the truth by way of variety. In a plain matter of fact manner did I rehearse my introduction to the archbishop's palace, and my discharge therefrom, to the infinite amusement of his Portuguese lordship. To be sure, in telling the truth, I did not keep my word, for I could not help launching out a little at the archbishop's expense, in spite of my solemn promise given to Melchior. But the best of the joke was, that Laura, taking my story for a fiction invented after her example, burst out into peals of laughter: whereas the whimsicality of the circumstance would have raised a soberer mirth, had she known it to have been alloyed with the base ingredient of veracity.
After having come to the end of my tale, which closed with just mentioning the lodging I had taken, dinner was announced. I instantly motioned to with draw, as if intending to take that frugal meal at home; but Laura would not hear of it. Do you mean to affront me, brother! said she. You must dine here. Indeed, I cannot think of your staying any longer at a paltry inn. You must positively board and lodge in my house. Send your trunks hither this very evening; there is a spare bed for you.
His Portuguese lordship, possibly not altogether relishing this excess of hospitality even to a brother, then interfered between us, and said to Laura -- No, Estella, you have not sufficient accommodation to give him a bed without inconvenience. Your brother seems to be a clever young fellow; and the circumstance of his being so nearly related to you, gives him a strong claim on my kindness. He shall be put at once upon my establishment. I am in want of a secretary, and shall delight in giving him the appointment: he shall be my right-hand man. Let him be sure to come and sleep at my house this very night; I will order a room to be got ready for him. I will fix his regular salary at four hundred ducats; and if on better acquaintance I have reason as I trust I shall, to be satisfied with him, I will place him in a situation to laugh at the consequences of having been a little too plain-spoken with his patron the archbishop.
My acknowledgments to the marquis for this high honour were followed by those of Laura, who far exceeded me in powers of panegyric. Let us drop the subject, interrupted he; it is a settled point Settled as it was, he confirmed the contract on the lips of his green-room Dulcinea, and went his way. She immediately pulled me by the arm into a closet, where, secure from interruption, she cried out, Cut my laces! I shall burst if I do not give way at once to the fit of laughter that is coming over me. And so she probably would; for she threw herself into an arm-chair, and holding both her sides, shouted out her convulsive peal of mirth like a mad woman. It was impossible for me to refrain from following her example. When we had exhausted our risible propensities, Own, Gil Blas, said she, that we have just been acting a very humorous farce. But I did not look for the concluding scene. My only thought was to secure you board and lodging under my own roof; and there was no other possibility of making the proposition in a modest way but by passing you off for my brother. But I am heartily glad that the chapter of accidents has opened with so good a berth for you. The Marquis de Marialva is a noble man of liberal and honourable sentiments, who will be better than his word in what he does for you. But confess now! There is scarcely a woman in existence except myself would have given so coming-on a reception to a fellow who shirks his friends without saying with your leave or by your leave. I however am one of those simple-hearted girls, who are glad to receive back again the base man they have once loved, though he should have offended and repented seven, or even seven thousand times.
The best way for me was to acknowledge the extreme ill-breeding of which I had been guilty, to blush and beg pardon once for all. After this explanation, she led the way to a very handsome dining-room. We placed ourselves at table, where having a chambermaid and a footboy for eye-witnesses, we kept within the bounds of brother and sister. When we had done dinner, we went back again into the same closet where we had been conversing before. Having our time to ourselves, my paragon of a Laura, giving herself up to her natural love of merriment, and to her no less natural curiosity, required from me a faithful and true narrative of all my pros and cons, my ins and outs, since that unmannerly separation of ours. I gave her a full and particular account: nothing extenuating on my own behalf, nor setting down aught in malice on the other side. When I had quenched her thirst after a story, she slaked mine, by communicating the particulars of her eventful life to the following effect.