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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Gil Blas Becomes the Archbishop’s Favorite, and the Channel of All His Favors
By Alain René Lesage (1688–1747)
From ‘Gil Blas’: Translation of Tobias George Smollett

I HAD been after dinner to get together my baggage, and take my horse from the inn where I had put up; and afterwards returned to supper at the archbishop’s palace, where a neatly furnished room was got ready for me, and such a bed as was more likely to pamper than to mortify the flesh. The day following, his Grace sent for me quite as soon as I was ready to go to him. It was to give me a homily to transcribe. He made a point of having it copied with all possible accuracy. It was done to please him; for I omitted neither accent, nor comma, nor the minutest tittle of all he had marked down. His satisfaction at observing this was heightened by its being unexpected. “Eternal Father!” exclaimed he in a holy rapture, when he had glanced his eye over all the folios of my copy, “was ever anything seen so correct? You are too good a transcriber not to have some little smattering of the grammarian. Now tell me with the freedom of a friend: in writing it over, have you been struck with nothing that grated upon your feelings? Some little careless idiom, or some word used in an improper sense?” “Oh, may it please your Grace,” answered I with a modest air, “it is not for me, with my confined education and coarse taste, to aim at making critical remarks. And though ever so well qualified, I am satisfied that your Grace’s works would come out pure from the essay.” The successor of the Apostles smiled at my answer. He made no observation on it; but it was easy to see through all his piety that he was an arrant author at the bottom: there is something in that dye that not heaven itself can wash out.  1
  I seemed to have purchased the fee simple of his good graces by my flattery. Day after day did I get a step farther in his esteem; and Don Ferdinand, who came to see him very often, told me my footing was so firm that there could not be a doubt but my fortune was made. Of this my master himself gave me a proof some little time afterwards; and the occasion was as follows:—One evening in his closet he rehearsed before me, with appropriate emphasis and action, a homily which he was to deliver the next day in the cathedral. He did not content himself with asking me what I thought of it in the gross, but insisted on my telling him what passages struck me most. I had the good fortune to pick out those which were nearest to his own taste,—his favorite commonplaces. Thus, as luck would have it, I passed in his estimation for a man who had a quick and natural relish of the real and less obvious beauties in a work. “This indeed,” exclaimed he, “is what you may call having discernment and feeling in perfection! Well, well, my friend! it cannot be said of you,—
  ‘Bœotum in crasso jurares aëre natum.’” 1
  In a word, he was so highly pleased with me as to add in a tone of extraordinary emotion, “Never mind, Gil Blas! henceforward take no care about hereafter: I shall make it my business to please you among the favored children of my bounty. You have my best wishes; and to prove to you that you have them, I shall take you into my inmost confidence.”  3
  These words were no sooner out of his mouth, than I fell at his Grace’s feet, quite overwhelmed with gratitude. I embraced his elliptical legs with almost pagan idolatry, and considered myself as a man on the high-road to a very handsome fortune. “Yes, my child,” resumed the archbishop, whose speech had been cut short by the rapidity of my prostration, “I mean to make you the receiver-general of all my inmost ruminations. Hearken attentively to what I am going to say. I have a great pleasure in preaching. The Lord sheds a blessing on my homilies; they sink deep into the hearts of sinners; set up a glass in which vice sees its own image, and bring back many from the paths of error into the high-road of repentance. What a heavenly sight, when a miser, scared at the hideous picture of his avarice drawn by my eloquence, opens his coffers to the poor and needy, and dispenses the accumulated store with a liberal hand! The voluptuary too is snatched from the pleasures of the table; ambition flies at my command to the wholesome discipline of the monastic cell; while female frailty, tottering on the brink of ruin, with one ear open to the siren voice of the seducer and the other to my saintly correctives, is restored to domestic happiness and the approving smile of heaven, by the timely warnings of the pulpit. These miraculous conversions, which happen almost every Sunday, ought of themselves to goad me on in the career of saving souls. Nevertheless, to conceal no part of my weakness from my monitor, there is another reward on which my heart is intent,—a reward which the seraphic scrupulousness of my virtue to little purpose condemns as too carnal,—a literary reputation for a sublime and elegant style. The honor of being handed down to posterity as a perfect pulpit orator has its irresistible attractions. My compositions are generally thought to be equally powerful and persuasive; but I could wish of all things to steer clear of the rock on which good authors split who are too long before the public, and to retire from professional life with my reputation in undiminished lustre. To this end, my dear Gil Blas,” continued the prelate, “there is one thing requisite from your zeal and friendship. Whenever it shall strike you that my pen begins to contract, as it were, the ossification of old age, whenever you see my genius in its climacteric, do not fail to give me a hint. There is no trusting to one’s self in such a case: pride and conceit were the original sin of man. The probe of criticism must be intrusted to an impartial stander-by, of fine talents and unshaken probity. Both those requisites centre in you: you are my choice, and I give myself up to your direction.”—“Heaven be praised, my lord,” said I, “there is no need to trouble yourself with any such thoughts yet. Besides, an understanding of your Grace’s mold and calibre will last out double the time of a common genius; or to speak with more certainty and truth, it will never be the worse for wear, if you live to the age of Methusalem. I consider you as a second Cardinal Ximenes, whose powers, superior to decay, instead of flagging with years seemed to derive new vigor from their approximation with the heavenly regions.” “No flattery, my friend!” interrupted he. “I know myself to be in danger of failing all at once. At my age one begins to be sensible of infirmities, and those of the body communicate with the mind. I repeat it to you, Gil Blas, as soon as you shall be of opinion that my head is not so clear as usual, give me warning of it instantly. Do not be afraid of offending by frankness and sincerity: to put me in mind of my own frailty will be the strongest proof of your affection for me. Besides, your very interest is concerned in it; for if it should, by any spite of chance towards you, come to my ears that the people say in town, ‘His Grace’s sermons produce no longer their accustomed impression; it is time for him to abandon his pulpit to younger candidates,’—I do assure you, most seriously and solemnly, you will lose not only my friendship, but the provision for life that I have promised you. Such will be the result of your silly tampering with truth.”  4
  Here my patron left off to wait for my answer, which was an echo of his speech, and a promise of obeying him in all things. From that moment there were no secrets from me; I became the prime favorite. All the household, except Melchior de la Ronda, looked at me with an eye of envy. It was curious to observe the manner in which the whole establishment, from the highest to the lowest, thought it necessary to demean themselves towards his Grace’s confidential secretary; there was no meanness to which they would not stoop to curry favor with me: I could scarcely believe they were Spaniards. I left no stone unturned to be of service to them, without being taken in by their interested assiduities….  5
  Two months after this worthy gentleman had left us, in the luxuriant harvest of my highest favor, a lowering storm came suddenly over the episcopal palace: the archbishop had a stroke of apoplexy. By dint of immediate applications and good nursing, in a few days there was no bodily appearance of disease remaining. But his reverend intellects did not so easily recover from their lethargy. I could not help observing it to myself in the very first discourse that he composed. Yet there was not such a wide gap between the merits of the present and the former ones as to warrant the inference that the sun of oratory was many degrees advanced in its post-meridian course. A second homily was worth waiting for, because that would clearly determine the line of my conduct. Alas, and well-a-day! when that second homily came, it was a knock-down argument. Sometimes the good prelate moved forward, and sometimes he moved backward; sometimes he mounted up into the garret, and sometimes dipped down into the cellar. It was a composition of more sound than meaning; something like a superannuated schoolmaster’s theme when he attempts to give his boys more sense than he possesses of his own, or like a capuchin’s sermon which only scatters a few artificial flowers of paltry rhetoric over a barren desert of doctrine.  6
  I was not the only person whom the alteration struck. The audience at large, when he delivered it, as if they too had been pledged to watch the advances of dotage, said to one another in a whisper all around the church, “Here is a sermon with symptoms of apoplexy in every paragraph.” “Come, my good Coryphæus of the public taste in homilies,” said I then to myself, “prepare to do your office. You see that my lord archbishop is going very fast,—you ought to warn him of it, not only as his bosom friend on whose sincerity he relies, but lest some blunt fellow should anticipate you and bolt out the truth in an offensive manner; in that case you know the consequence: you would be struck out of his will, where, no doubt, you have a more convertible bequest than the licentiate Sedillo’s library.”  7
  But as reason, like Janus, looks at things with two faces, I began to consider the other side of the question: the hint seemed difficult to wrap up so as to make it palatable. Authors in general are stark mad on the subject of their own works, and such an author might be more testy than the common herd of the irritable race; but that suspicion seemed illiberal on my part, for it was impossible that my freedom should be taken amiss when it had been forced upon me by so positive an injunction. Add to this, that I reckoned upon handling the subject skillfully, and cramming discretion down his throat like a high-seasoned epicurean dish. After all my pro and con, finding that I risked more by keeping silence than by breaking it, I determined to venture on the delicate duty of speaking my mind.  8
  Now there was but one difficulty,—a difficulty indeed!—how to open the business. Luckily the orator himself extricated me from that embarrassment, by asking what they said of him in the world at large, and whether people were tolerably well pleased with his last discourse. I answered that there could be but one opinion about his homilies; but that it should seem as if the last had not quite struck home to the hearts of the audience, like those which had gone before. “Do you really mean what you say, my friend?” replied he, with a sort of wriggling surprise. “Then my congregation are more in the temper of Aristarchus than of Longinus!” “No, may it please your Grace,” rejoined I: “quite the contrary. Performances of that order are above the reach of vulgar criticism: there is not a soul but expects to be saved by their influence. Nevertheless, since you have made it my duty to be sincere and unreserved, I shall take the liberty of just stating that your last discourse is not written with quite the overpowering eloquence and conclusive argument of your former ones. Does not your Grace feel just as I do on the subject?”  9
  This ignorant and stupid frankness of mine completely blanched my master’s cheek; but he forced a fretful smile, and said, “Then, good Master Gil Blas, that piece does not exactly hit your fancy?” “I did not mean to say that, your Grace,” interrupted I, looking very foolish. “It is very far superior to what any one else could produce, though a little below par with respect to your own works in general.” “I know what you mean,” replied he. “You think I am going down-hill, do you not? Out with it at once. It is your opinion that it is time for me to think of retiring?” “I should never have had the presumption,” said I, “to deliver myself with so little reserve, if it had not been your Grace’s express command. I act in entire obedience to your Grace’s orders; and I most obsequiously implore your Grace not to take offense at my boldness.” “I were unfit to live in a Christian land,” interrupted he, with stammering impatience,—“I were unfit to live in a Christian land if I liked you the less for such a Christian virtue as sincerity. A man who does not love sincerity sets his face against the distinguishing mark between a friend and a flatterer. I should have given you infinite credit for speaking what you thought, if you had thought anything that deserved to be spoken. I have been finely taken in by your outside show of cleverness, without any solid foundation of sober judgment!”  10
  Though completely unhorsed, and at the enemy’s mercy, I wanted to make terms of decent capitulation, and to go unmolested into winter quarters; but let those who think to appease an exasperated author, and especially an author whose ear has been long attuned to the music of his own praises, take warning by my fate. “Let us talk no more on the subject, my very young friend,” said he. “You are as yet scarcely in the rudiments of good taste, and utterly incompetent to distinguish between gold and tinsel. You are yet to learn that I never in all my life composed a finer homily than that unfortunate one which had not the honor of your approbation. The immortal part of me, by the blessing of heaven on me and my congregation, is less weighed down by human infirmity than when the flesh was stronger. We all grow wiser as we grow older, and I shall in future select the people about me with more caution; nor submit the castigation of my works but to a much abler critic than yourself. Get about your business!” pursued he, giving me an angry shove by the shoulders out of his closet; “go and tell my treasurer to pay you a hundred ducats, and take my priestly blessing in addition to that sum. God speed you, good Master Gil Blas! I heartily pray that you may do well in the world! There is nothing to stand in your way but the want of a little better taste.”  11
Note 1. “You would have sworn he was born in the wit-dulling air of Bœotia.” [back]

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