CH. XII. -- Gil Blas takes lodgings in a ready-furnished house. He gets acquainted with Captain Chinchilla. That officer's character and business at Madrid.
ON my first arrival at Madrid, I fixed my head-quarters in a lodging-house, where resided, among other persons, an old captain, who was come from the distant part of New Castile, to solicit a pension at court, and he thought his claims but too well founded. His name was Don Annibal de Chinchilla. It was not without much staring that I saw him for the first time. He was a man about sixty, of gigantic stature, and of anatomical leanness. His whiskers were like brushwood, fencing off the two sides of his face as high as his temples. Besides that, he was short in his reckoning by an arm and a leg, there was a vacancy for an eye, which Polypheme would have supplied as he did, had patches of green silk been then in the fashion; and his features were hacked sufficiently to illustrate a treatise of geometry. With these exceptions, his configuration was much like that of another man. As to his mental qualities, he was not altogether without understanding; and what he wanted in quickness he made up by gravity. His principles were rigid in the extreme; and it was his particular boast to be delicate on the point of honour.
After two or three interviews, he distinguished me by his confidence. I soon got into all his personal history: he related on what occasions he had left an eye at Naples, an arm in Lombardy, and a leg in the Low Countries. The most admirable circumstance in all his narratives of battles and sieges, was, that not a single feature of the swaggerer peeped out; not a word escaped him to his own honour and glory; though one could readily have forgiven him for making some little display of the half which was still extant of himself, as a set-off against the dilapidations which had deducted so largely from the usual contexture of a man. Officers who return from their campaigns without a scratch upon their skin or a love-lock out of place, are not always so humble in their pretensions.
But he told me that what gave him most uneasiness was, the having wasted a considerable portion of his private fortune on military objects, so that he had not more than a hundred ducats a year left; a poor establishment for such a pair of whiskers, a gentleman's lodging, and an amanuensis to multiply memorials by wholesale. For in point of fact, my worthy friend, added he, shrugging his shoulders, I present one, with a blessing on my endeavours, every day, and the last meets with the same attention as the first. You would say that it was an even bet between the prime minister and me, which of us two shall be fired first; the memorialist or the receiver of the memorials. I have often had the honour, too, of addressing the king on the same subject; but the rector and his curate say grace in the same key; and in the mean time, my castle of Chinchilla is falling to ruin for want of necessary repairs.
Faint heart never won fair lady, said I most wisely to the captain; you are perhaps on the eve of finding all your marches and countermarches repaid with usury. I must not flatter myself with that pleasing expectation, answered Don Annibal. It is but three days since I spoke to one of the minister's secretaries; and if I am to trust his representations, I have only to hold up my head and look big. What then did he say to you? replied I. Had those poor dumb mouths your wounds no eloquence, to wring a hireling pittance for their profuse expense of blood? You shall judge for yourself, resumed Chinchilla. This secretary told me in good plain terms: My honest friend, you need not boast so much of your zeal and your fidelity; you have only done your duty in exposing yourself to danger for your country. Naked glory is the true and honourable recompense of gallant actions, and as such is the prize at which a Spaniard aims. You therefore argue on false principles, if you consider the bounty you solicit as a debt. In case it should be granted, you will owe that favour exclusively to the royal goodness, which in its extreme condescension requites those of its subjects who have served the state valiantly. Thus you see, pursued the captain, that if I had a hundred lives they are all pledged, and that I am likely to go back as hungry as I came.
A brave man in distress is the most touching object in this world. I exhorted him to stick close, and offered to write his memorials out fair for nothing. I even went so far as to open my purse to him, and to beg it as a favour that he would draw upon me for whatever he wanted. But he was not one of those folks who never wait to be asked twice on such occasions. So much the reverse, that with a commendable delicacy on the subject, he thanked me for my kindness, but refused it peremptorily. He afterwards told me that, for fear of spunging upon any one, he had accustomed himself, by little and little, to live with such sobriety, that the smallest quantity of food was sufficient for his subsistence; which was but too true. His daily fare was confined to vegetables, by dint whereof his component parts were confined to skin and bone. That he might have no witnesses how ill he dined, he usually shut himself up in his chamber at that meal. I prevailed so far with him, however, by repeated entreaties, as to obtain that we should dine and sup together: then, undermining his pride by little indirect artifices of compassion, I ordered more provision and wine than I could consume to my own share. I pressed him to eat and drink. At first he made difficulties about it; but in the end there was no resisting my hospitality. After a time, his modesty becoming fainter as his diet was more flush, he helped me off with my dinner and lightened my bottle almost without asking.
One day, after four or five glasses, when his stomach had renewed its intimacy with a more generous system of feeding, he said to me with an air of gaiety: Upon my word, Signor Gil Blas, you have very winning ways with you; you make me do just whatever you please. There is something so hearty in your welcome as to relieve me from all fear of trespassing on your generous temper. My captain seemed at that moment so entirely to have got rid of his bashfulness, that if I had been in the humour to have seized the lucky moment, and to have pressed my purse once more on his acceptance, I am much mistaken if he would have refused it. I did not put him to the trial; but rested satisfied with having made him my messmate, and taken the trouble not only to copy out his memorials, but to assist him in their composition. By dint of having written homilies out fair, I had learnt the knack of phraseology, and was become a sort of author. The old officer on his side had some little vanity about writing well. Both of us thus contending for the prize, the bursts of eloquence would have done honour to the most celebrated professors of Salamanca. But it was in vain that we sat on opposite sides of the table, and drained our genius to the very dregs, to nourish the flowers of rhetoric in these memorials; you might as well have planted an orange-grove on the sea-beach. In whatever new light we placed Don Annibal's services, it was all the same at court, the connoisseurs were decided about their merit; so that the battered veteran had no reason to sing the praises of that spirit which leads officers on to spend their family estates in the service. In the virulence of his spleen he cursed the planet under which he was born, and sent Naples, Lombardy, and the Low Countries to the devil.
That his mortification might be pressed down and running over, it happened to his face one day that a poet, introduced by the Duke of Alva, having recited a sonnet before the king on the birth of an infant; was gratified with a pension of five hundred ducats. I believe the lop-limbed captain would have gone raving mad at it, if I had not taken some pains to recompense his spirit. What is the matter with you? said I, seeing him quite beside himself. There is nothing in all this which ought to go so terribly agaiust the grain. Ever since Mount Parnassus swelled above the subject plain, have not poets pleaded the privilege of laying princes under contribution to their muse? There is not a crowned head in Christendom that has not substituted a pensioned laureate for the household fool of less refined times. And between ourselves, this species of patronage, for the most part galloping down full drive to posterity on the saddle of Pegasus, raises a hue and cry in honour of royal munificence; but bounty to persons who are lost in a crowd, however deserving, adds nothing to the bulk or stature of posthumous renown. Augustus must have drained his treasury by gratuities, and yet how few of the names on his pension-list have come down to us! But distant ages shall be informed, as we are, in all the hyperbole of poetic diction, that his benefits descended on Virgil like the rain from heaven, whose drops arithmetic has no combinations to count, no principles by which to reason on their number.
But let me talk ever so classically to Don Annibal, there was a confounded acidity in that sonnet which curdled all the milky ingredients of his moral composition; it was impossible to chew, swallow, and digest such food with human organs; and he was fully determined to give the matter up at once. It seemed right, nevertheless, by way of playing for his last stake, to present one more memorial to the Duke of Lerma, and if that failed there was an end of the game. For this purpose we went together to the prime minister's. There we met a young man who, after saluting the captain, said to him in a tone of affection: My old and dear master, is it your own self that I see? What business brings you to this mart of favour? If you have occasion for any one to speak a good word for you, do not spare my lungs; they are entirely at your service. How is this, Pedrillo? answered the officer; to hear you talk it should seem as if you held some important post in this house. At least, replied the young man, I have influence enough here to put an honest rustic like you into the right train. That being the case, resumed the captain with a smile, I place myself under your protection. I accept the pledge, rejoined Pedrillo. You have only to acquaint me with your particular taste, and I engage to give you a savoury slice out of the ministerial pasty.
We had no sooner opened our minds to this young fellow, so full of kind assurances, than he inquired where Don Annibal resided; then, promising that we should hear from him on the following day, he vanished without informing us what he meant to do, or even telling us whether he belonged to the Duke of Lerma's household. I was curious to know what this Pedrillo was, whose turn of mind appeared to be so brisk and active. He is a brave lad, said the captain, who waited on me some years ago, but finding me out at elbows, went away in search of a better service. There was no offence to me in all that; it is very natural to change when one cannot be worse off. The creature is pleasant enough, not deficient in parts, and happy in a spirit of intrigue which would wheedle with the devil. But notwithstanding all his fine pretence, I am not sanguine in my reckoning on the zeal he has just testified for me. Perhaps, said I, there may be some plausibility in his designs. Should he be a retainer, for example, to any of the duke's principal officers, it will be in his power to serve you. You have lived too long in the world not to know that in great houses everything is done by party and cabal; that the masters are governed by two or three upper servants about their persons, who, in their turn, are governed by that multitude of menials attendant upon them.
On the next morning we saw Pedrillo at our breakfast table. Gentlemen, said he, if I did not explain myself yesterday as to my means of serving Captain Chinchilla, it was because we were not in a place where such a communication could be made with safety. Besides, I was disposed to ascertain whether the thing was feasible, before you were made parties in it. Understand, then, that I am the confidential servant of Signor Don Rodrigo de Calderona, the Duke of Lerma's first secretary. My master, who is much addicted to women, goes almost every evening to sup with a little Arragonian nightingale, whom he keeps in a cage near the purlieus of the court. She is quite a young girl from Albarazin, a most lovely creature. She has some wit as well as beauty, and sings enchantingly; they call her the Spanish Syren. I am the bearer of some tender inquiries every morning, and am just come from her. I have proposed to her to pass off Signor Don Annibal for her uncle, and the object of the forgery is to engage her lover in his interests. She is very willing to lend her aid in the business. Besides some little commission to which she looks forward on the profits, it will tickle her vanity to be taken for the niece of a military man.
Signor de Chinchilla looked very grim at this suggestion. He declared his extreme abhorrence of becoming a party concerned in a mere swindling trick, and still more of adopting a female adventurer, no better than she should be, into his family, and thus casting a stain upon its immaculate purity. It was not only for himself that he felt all this soreness; there was a recoil of ignominy on his ancestors, which would lay their honours level with the dust. This morbid delicacy seemed out of season to Pedrillo, who could not help expressing his contempt of it thus. You must surely be out of your wits to take the matter up on that footing. A fine market you bring your morals to, you dictators from the plough, with your ridiculous squeamishness! Now you seem a good sensible man, appealing to me as he spoke these last words. Can you believe your ears when you hear such scruples advanced? Heaven defend us! At court, of all the places in the world, to look at morals through a microscope! Let fortune come under what haggard form she may, they hug her in their arms, and swear she is a beauty.
My way of thinking was precisely with Pedrillo; and we dinned it so stoutly into both the captain's ear; as to make him the Spanish Syren's uncle against nature and inclination. When we had so far prevailed over his pride, we all three set about drawing up a new memorial for the minister, which was revised, with a copious interlacing of additions and corrections. I then wrote it out fair, and Pedrillo carried it to the Arragonian chauntress, who that very evening put it into the hands of Signor Don Rodrigo, telling her story so artlessly that the secretary, really supposing her the captain s niece, promised to take up his case. A few days afterwards we reaped the fruits of our little project. Pedrillo came back to our house with the lofty air of a benefactor. Good news, said he to Chinchilla. The king is going to make a new grant of officers, places, and pensions; nor will your name be forgotten in the list. But I am specially commissioned to inquire what present you purpose making to the Spanish Syren, for the piper must be paid. As to myself, I vow and protest that I will not take a farthing; the pleasure of having contributed to patch up my old master's broken fortunes, is more to me than all the ingots of the Indies. But it is not precisely so with our nymph of Albarazin. she has a little Jewish blood to plead, when the Christian precept of loving your neighbour as herself is preached up to her. She would pick her own natural father's pocket; so judge you whether she would be above making a bargain with a travelling uncle.
She has only to name her own terms, answered Don Annibal. Whatever my pension may be, she shall have the third of it annually if she pleases; I will pledge my word for it; and that proportion ought to satisfy her craving, if his Catholic Majesty had settled his whole exchequer on me. I would as soon take your word as your bond, for my own part, replied the nimble-footed messenger of Don Rodrigo; I know that it will stand the assay; but you have to deal with a little creature who knows herself, and naturally supposes that she knows all the rest of the world by the same token. Besides, she would like better to take it in the lump; two-thirds to be paid down now in ready money. Why, how the devil does she mean that I should get the wherewithal? bawled the captain in a quandary. Does she take me for an auditor of public accounts, or treasurer to a charity? You cannot have made her acquainted with my circumstances. Yes, but I have, replied Pedrillo; she knows very well that you are poorer than Job; after what she has heard from me she could think no otherwise. But do not make yourself uneasy, my brain is never at a loss for an expedient. I know an old scoundrel of an usurer, who will take ten per cent, if he can get no more. You must assign your first year's pension to him, in acknowledgment for a like valuable consideration from him, which you will in point of fact receive, only deducting the above-mentioned interest. As to security, the lender will take your castle at Chinchilla, for want of better; there will be no dispute about that.
The captain declared his readiness to accept the terms, in case of his being so fortunate as to possess any beneficial interest in the good things to be given away the next morning. It happened accordingly. He got a government with a pension of three hundred pistoles. As soon as the news came, he signed and sealed as required, settled his little concerns in town, and went off again for New Castile with a balance of some few pistoles in his favour.