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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Alain René Lesage (1688–1747)

The Archbishop’s Veracious Secretary

From “Gil Blas”

I HAD been in the afternoon to fetch my baggage and horse from the inn where I had lodged; after which I returned to supper at the palace, where I found a very handsome chamber, and a down bed, prepared for me. The archbishop ordered me to be called early next morning, and gave me a homily to transcribe, enjoining me to copy it with all possible exactness. This I performed minutely, without having forgot either accent, point, or comma; so that the joy he expressed was mingled with surprise. “Good heavens!” cried he in a transport, when he had surveyed all the sheets of my copy, “was anything so correct ever seen? You transcribe so well that you must certainly understand grammar. Tell me frankly, my friend, have you found nothing that shocked you in writing it over? Some neglect, perhaps, in the style, or improper term?” “Oh, sir,” answered I, with an air of modesty, “I am not learned enough to make critical observations; and if I were, I am persuaded that the works of your Grace would escape my censure.” The prelate smiled at my reply; and, though he said nothing, discovered, through all his piety, that he was a fine author.

By this kind of flattery I entirely gained his good graces, became more and more dear to him every day; and at length understood from Don Fernando, who visited him very often, that I was so much beloved I might look upon my fortune as already made. This my master himself confirmed to me, a little time after, on the following occasion. One evening he repeated in his closet, when I was present, with great enthusiasm, an homily which he intended to pronounce the next day in the cathedral, and, not satisfied with asking my opinion of it in general, obliged me to single out the particular passages which I most admired. I had the good luck to mention those that he himself looked upon to be the best, his own favorite bits; by which means I passed, in his judgment, for a man who had a delicate knowledge of the true beauties of a work. “This is,” cried he, “what is called having taste and sentiment; well, friend, I assure you you’ve not got Bœotian ears.” In a word, he was so well satisfied with me, that he pronounced with some vivacity, “Gil Blas, henceforth give yourself no uneasiness about your fortune; I undertake to make it extremely agreeable; I like you; and, as a proof of my affection, make you my confidant.”

I no sooner heard these words than I fell at his Grace’s feet, quite overcome with gratitude; I heartily embraced his bandy legs, and looked upon myself as a man on the highway to wealth and opulence. “Yes, my child,” resumed the archbishop, whose talk had been interrupted by my prostration, “you shall be the repository of my most secret thoughts. Listen with attention to what I am going to say. My chief pleasure consists in preaching; the Lord gives a blessing to my homilies; they touch the hearts of sinners, make them seriously reflect on their conduct, and have recourse to repentance. I have sometimes the satisfaction to see a miser, terrified by the images which I represent to his avarice, open his treasures, and lavish them with a generous hand. I have also torn, as it were, the epicurean from his pleasures, filled hermitages with the sons of ambition, and confirmed in her duty the wife who has been shaken by the allurements of a seducing lover. These conversions, which are frequent, ought of themselves to excite my study; nevertheless, I will confess my weakness; I propose another reward to myself, a reward which the delicacy of my virtue reproaches me with in vain! I mean the esteem that the world shows for fine, polished writing. The honor of being reckoned a perfect orator has charmed my imagination; my performances are thought equally strong and delicate; but I would, of all things, avoid the fault of good authors who write too long, and retire without forfeiting the least tittle of my reputation. Wherefore, my dear Gil Blas,” continued the prelate, “one thing that I exact of your zeal is, whenever you shall perceive my pen to smack of old age, and my genius to flag, don’t fail to advise me of it; for I don’t trust to my own judgment, which may be seduced by self-love. That observation must proceed from a disinterested understanding, and I make choice of yours, which I know is good, resolved to stand by your decision.”…

In the very zenith of my favor, we had a hot alarm in the episcopal palace; the archbishop was seized with a fit of apoplexy; he was, however, succored immediately, and such salutary medicines administered, that in a few days his health was re-established; but his understanding had received a rude shock, which I plainly perceived in the very next discourse which he composed. I did not, however, find the difference between this and the rest so sensible as to make me conclude that the orator began to flag; and waited for another homily to fix my resolution. This indeed was quite decisive; sometimes the good old prelate repeated the same thing over and over; sometimes rose too high, or sunk too low: it was a vague discourse, the rhetoric of an old professor, a mere capuchinade.

I was not the only person who took notice of this; the greatest part of the audience, when he pronounced it, as if they had been also hired to examine it, said softly to one another, “This sermon smells strong of apoplexy.” Come, master homily-critic (said I then to myself), prepare to do your office; you see that his Grace begins to fail: it is your duty to give him notice of it, not only as the depositor of his thoughts, but likewise lest some one of his friends should be free enough with him to forestall you.

The only thing that embarrassed me was how to break the ice. Luckily the orator himself extricated me from that difficulty by asking what people said of him, and if they were satisfied with his last discourse. I answered that his homilies were always admired, but, in my opinion, the last had not succeeded so well as the rest in affecting the audience. “How, friend!” replied he with astonishment; “has it met with any Aristarchus?” “No, sir,” said I, “by no means; such works as yours are not to be criticized; everybody is charmed with them. Nevertheless, since you have laid your injunctions upon me to be free and sincere, I will take the liberty to tell you that your last discourse, in my judgment, has not altogether the energy of your other performances. Are not you of the same opinion?”

My master grew pale at these words, and said with a forced smile, “So then, Master Gil Blas, this piece is not to your taste?” “I don’t say so, sir,” cried I, disconcerted. “I think it excellent, although a little inferior to your other works.” “I understand you,” he replied; “you think I flag, don’t you? Come, be plain; you believe it is time for me to think of retiring.” “I should not have been so bold,” said I, “as to speak so freely, if your Grace had not commanded me. I do no more, therefore, than obey you; and I most humbly beg that you will not be offended at my freedom.” “God forbid,” cried he immediately, “God forbid that I should find fault with it. In so doing, I should be very unjust. I don’t at all take it ill that you speak your sentiment; it is your sentiment only that I find bad. I have been most egregiously deceived by your narrow understanding.”

Though I was disconcerted, I endeavored to find some mitigation, in order to set things to rights again; but how is it possible to appease an incensed author, one especially who has been accustomed to hear himself praised? “Say no more, my child,” said he; “you are yet too raw to make proper distinctions. Know that I never composed a better homily than that which you disapprove; for my genius (thank Heaven) has, as yet, lost nothing of its vigor. Henceforth I will make a better choice of a confidant, and keep one of greater ability than you. Go,” added he, pushing me by the shoulder out of his closet, “go tell my treasurer to give you a hundred ducats, and may Heaven bless you. Good-by, Master Gil Blas, I wish you all manner of prosperity, and a little better taste.”