CH. XIII. -- Gil Blas goes on personating the great man. He hears news of his family: a touch of nature on the occasion. A grand quarrel with Fabricio.
I MENTIONED some time ago, that in the morning there was usually a crowd of people in my ante-chamber, coming to negotiate little private concerns in the way of politics; but I would never suffer them to open their business by word of mouth; but adopting court precedent, or rather giving myself the airs of a jack in office, my language to every suitor was -- Send in a memorial on the subject. My tongue ran so glibly to that tune, that one day I gave my landlord the official answer, when he came to put me in mind of a twelvemonth's rent in arrear. As for my butcher and baker, they spared the trouble of asking for their memorials, by never giving me time to run up a bill. Scipio, who mimicked me so exactly, that only those behind the scenes could distinguish the double from the principal performer, held his head just as high with the poor devils who curried favour with him, as a step of the ladder to my ministerial patronage.
There was another foolish trick of mine, of which I do not by any means pretend to make a merit; neither more nor less than the extreme assurance of talking about the first nobility, just as if I had been one of their kidney. Suppose, for example, the Duke of Alva, the Duke of Ossuna, or the Duke of Medina Sidonia were mentioned in conversation, I called them without ceremony, my friend Alva, that good-natured fellow Ossuna, or that comical dog Medina Sidonia. In a word, my pride and vanity had swelled to such a height, that my father and mother were no longer among the number of my honoured relatives. Alas! poor understrappers, I never thought of asking whether you had sunk or were swimming in the Asturias. A thought about you never came into my head. The court has all the soporific virtues of Lethe, in the case of poor relations.
My family was completely obliterated from the tablets of my memory, when one morning a young man knocked at my door and begged to speak with me for a moment in private. He was shown into my closet, where, without asking him to take a chair, as he seemed to be quite a common fellow, I desired to know abruptly what he wanted. How! Signor Gil Blas? said he, do you not remember me? It was in vain that I perused the lines of his face over and over again; I was obliged to tell him fairly that he had the advantage of me. Why, I am one of your old schoolfellows! replied he, bred and born in Oviedo; Bertrand Muscada, the grocer's son, next-door neighbour to your uncle the canon. I recollect you as well as if it was but yesterday. We have played a thousand times together at blind man's buff and prison bars.
My youthful recollections, answered I, are very transient and confused. Blind man's buff and prison bars are but childish amusement! The burden of state affairs leaves me little time to ruminate on the trifles of my younger days. I am come to Madrid, said he, to settle accounts with my father's correspondent. I heard talk of you! Folks say that you have, a good berth at court, and are already almost as well off as a Jew broker. I thought I would just call in and say, how d'ye do? On my return into the country, your family will jump out of their skins for joy, when they hear how famously you are getting on.
It was impossible in decency to avoid asking how my father, my mother, and my uncle stood in the world; but that duty was performed in so gingerly a manner, as to leave the grocer little room to compliment dame Nature on her liberal provision of instinct. He seemed quite shocked at my indifference for such near kindred, and told me bluntly, with his coarse shopman's familiarity, Methinks you might have shown more heartiness and natural feeling for your kinsfolk! Why, you ask after them just as if they were vermin! Your father and mother are still at service; take that in your dish! And the good canon, Gil Perez, eat up with gout, rheumatism, and old age, has one foot in the grave. People should feel as people ought; and seeing that you are in a berth to be a blessing to your poor parents, take a friend's advice, and allow them two hundred pistoles a year. That will be doing a handsome thing, and making them comfortable, and then you may spend the rest upon yourself with a good conscience. Instead of being softened by this family picture, I only resented the officiousness of unasked advice. A more delicate and covert remonstrance might perhaps have made its impression, but so bold a rebuke only hardened my heart. My sulky silence was not lost upon him, so that while he moralized himself out of charity into downright abuse, my choler began to overflow. Nay, then! this is too much, answered I, in a devil of a passion. Get about your business, Master Muscada, and mind your own shop. You are a pretty fellow to preach to me! As if I were to be taught my duty by you. Without further parley I handed the grocer out of my closet by the shoulder, and sent him off to weigh figs and nutmegs at Oviedo.
The home-strokes he had laid on were not lost to my sober recollection. My neglect of filial piety struck home to my heart, and melted me into tears. When I recollected how much my childhood was indebted to my parents, what pains they had taken in my education, these affecting thoughts gave language for the moment to the still small voice of nature and gratitude; but the language was never translated into solid sense and service. An habitual callousness succeeded this transient sensation, and peremptorily cancelled every obligation of humanity. There are many fathers besides mine, who will acknowledge this portrait of their sons.
Avarice and ambition, dividing me between them, annihilated every trace of my former temper. I lost all my gaiety, became absent and moping, -- in short, a most unsociable animal. Fabricio seeing me so furiously bent on accumulation, and so perfectly indifferent to him, very rarely came to see me. He could not help saying one day: In truth, Gil Blas, you are quite an altered man. Before you were about the court, you were always pleasant and easy. Now you are all agitation and turmoil. You form project after project to make a fortune, and the more you realize, the wider your views of aggrandizement extend. But this is not the worst! You have no longer that expansion of heart, those open manners, which form the charm of friendship. On the contrary, you wrap yourself round, and shut the avenues of your heart even to me. In your very civilities, I detect the violence you impose upon yourself. In short, Gil Blas is no longer the same Gil Blas whom I once knew.
You really have a most happy talent for bantering, answered I, with repulsive jocularity. But this metamorphose into the shag of a savage is not perceptible to myself. Your own eyes, replied he, are insensible to the change, because they are fascinated. But the fact remains the same. Now, my friend, tell me fairly and honestly, shall we live together as heretofore? When I used to knock at your door in the morning, you came and opened it yourself; between asleep and awake, and I walked in without ceremony. Now, what a difference! You have an establishment of servants. They keep me cooling my heels in your ante-chamber; my name must be sent in before I can speak to you. When this is got over, what is my reception? A cold inclination of the head, and the insolent strut of office. Any one would suppose that my visits were growing troublesome! Can you suppose this to be treatment for a man who was once on equal terms with you? No, Santillane, it can never be, nor will I bear it longer. Farewell! Let us part without ill blood. We shall both be better asunder; you will get rid of a troublesome censor, and I of a purse-proud upstart who does not know himself.
I felt myself more exasperated than reformed by his reproaches; and suffered him to take his departure without the slightest effort to overcome his resolution. In the present temper of my mind, the friendship of a poet did not seem a catch of sufficient importance to break one's heart about its loss. I found ample amends in the intimacy of some subaltern attendants about the king's person, with whom a similarity of humour had lately connected me closely. These new acquaintance of mine were for the most part men from no one knows where, pushed up to their appointments more by luck than merit. They had all got into warm berths; and, wretches as they were, measuring their own consequence by the excess of royal bounty, forgot their origin as scandalously as I forgot mine. We gave ourselves infinite credit for what told so much and bitterly to our disgrace. O fortune! what a jade you are, to distribute your favours at haphazard as you do! Epictetus was perfectly in the right, when he likened you to a jilt of fashion, prowling about in masquerade, and tipping the wink to every blackguard who parades the street.