The Devil on Two Sticks - CHAPTER X

CHAPTER X
THE SUBJECT OF WHICH IS INEXHAUSTIBLE

RUN your eyes over the city, and as we discover subjects worthy of being placed in this museum, I will describe them to you. There is one, already; I must not let him escape: he is a newly-married man. It is just a week since, in consequence of reports which reached his ears relative to the coquetries of a damsel whom he affected, he went in a fury to her house, broke one portion of her furniture, threw the other out of windows, and on the next day mended the matter by espousing her. A proper candidate, indeed, said Zambullo, for a vacant place in this establishment!

He has a neighbour, resumed the Cripple, who is not much wiser than himself, a bachelor of forty-five, who, with plenty to live on, would yet swell the train of some noble pauper. And yonder is the widow of an advocate, who, having counted three-score years and more, is about to seek the shelter of a convent, that her reputation may not, as she says, suffer scandal in this wicked world.

I perceive also two virgins, or, to speak more properly, two girls of fifty years of age. They pray Heaven, in its mercy, to take to it their father, who keeps them mewed like minors; as they hope, when he is gone, to find handsome men who will marry them for love. And why not? inquired the Scholar; there are stranger things than such men to be found. I am perfectly of your opinion, replied Asmodeus: they may find husbands, doubtless; but they ought not to expect to be so fortunate,—it is therein that their folly consists.

There is no country in the world in which women speak the truth in regard to their age. At Paris, about a month ago, a maiden of forty-eight and a woman of sixty-nine had occasion to go before a magistrate as witnesses in a case which concerned the honour of a widow of their acquaintance. The magistrate, first addressing himself to the married lady, asked her age; and, although her years might have been counted by the wrinkles on her brow, she unhesitatingly replied, that she was exactly forty. And you, madam, said the man of law, addressing the single lady in her turn, may I ask your age also? We can dispense with that, your worship, replied the damsel; it is a question that ought not to be asked. Impossible! replied he; are you not aware that the law requires. Oh! interrupted the lady sharply, the law requires nothing of the kind: what matters it to the law what my age may be? It is none of its business. But, madam, said the magistrate, I cannot receive your testimony unless your age be stated; it is a necessary preliminary, I assure you. Well, replied the maiden, if it be absolutely necessary, look at me with attention, and put down my age conscientiously.

The magistrate looked at her over his spectacles, and was polite enough to decree that she did not appear above twenty-eight. But when to his question, as to how long she had known the widow, the witness replied—before her marriage: I have made a mistake, said he; for I have put you down for twenty-eight, whereas it is nine and twenty years since the lady became a wife. You may state then, cried the maiden, that I am thirty: I may have known the widow since I was one year old. That will hardly do, replied the magistrate; we may as well add a dozen years at once. By no means, said the lady; I will allow another year, if you please; but if my own honour were in question instead of the widow's, I would not add one month more to please the law, or any other body in the world.

When the two witnesses had left the magistrate, the woman said to the maiden: Do not you wonder at this noodle, who thinks us young enough to tell him our ages to a day? It is enough, surely, that they should be inscribed on the parish registers, without his poking them into his depositions, for the information of all the world. It would be delightful, truly, to hear recited in open court,—Madame Richard, aged sixty and so many years, and Mademoiselle Perinelle, aged forty-five, depose such and so forth. It is too absurd: I have taken care to suppress a good score of years; and you were wise enough to follow my example.

What do you mean by following your example? cried the ancient damsel, with youthful indignation: I am extremely obliged to you; but I would have you to know that thirty-five years are the utmost I have seen. Why! child, replied the matron, with a malicious smile, you forget yourself; I was present at your birth—ah! what a time it is ago! And your poor father! I knew him well. But we must all die; and he was not young, either: it is nearly forty years since we buried him. Oh! my father, interrupted the virgin, hastily, irritated at the precision of the old dame's tender recollections,—my father was so old when he married my mother, that she was not likely to have any children by him.

I perceive in that house opposite, continued the Spirit, two men, who are not over-burdened with sense. One is a youth of family, who can neither keep money in his pocket, nor do entirely without it: he has discovered, therefore, an excellent means of always having a supply. When he is in cash, he lays it out in books, and when his purse is empty, he sells them for the half of their cost. The other is a foreign artist, who seeks for patronage among the ladies as a portrait painter: he is clever, draws correctly, colours to perfection, and is extraordinarily successful in the likeness; but—he never flatters his originals, yet expects the women will flock to him. Sheer stupidity! Inter stultos referatur.

What! cried the Scholar, have you studied the classics? You ought hardly to be surprised at that, replied the Devil: I speak fluently all your barbarous tongues—Hebrew, Greek, Persic, and Arabic. Nevertheless, I am not vain of my attainments; and that, at all events, is an advantage I have over your learned pedants.

You may see in that large mansion, on the left, a sick lady surrounded by several others, who are in attendance upon her: she is the rich widow of a celebrated architect, whose love for her husband's profession has extended itself to the most foolish admiration of the Corinthian capital of society—the higher classes. She has just made her will, by which she bequeaths her immense wealth to grandees of the first class, who are ignorant of her very existence, but whose titles have gained for them their legacies. She was asked whether she would not leave something to a person who had rendered her most important services. Alas! no, she replied, with an appearance of regret; and I am sorry that I cannot do so. I am not so ungrateful as to deny the obligation which I owe to him; but his humble name would disgrace my will.

Signor Asmodeus, interrupted Leandro, tell me, I pray you, whether the old gentleman whom I perceive so busy reading in his study, does not chance to be one of those who merit to be here confined. He does, indeed, deserve it, answered the Demon: he is an old licentiate, who is reading a proof of a book which he is passing through the press. Doubtless, some work on morals or theology? said Don Cleophas. Not it, replied the Cripple it is a collection of amatory songs, which he wrote in his youth: instead of burning them, or at least suffering them to fall into the oblivion to which he is fast hastening, he has resolved to print them himself, for fear his heirs should be tempted to do so after his death, and that, out of respect for his memory, they should deprive them of their point by rendering them decent.

There is a little lady living in the same house with our Anacreon, whom I must not forget: she is so entirely convinced of the power of her attractions, that no man ever spoke to her whom she did not at once place in the list of her admirers.

But let us turn to a wealthy canon, whom I see a few paces beyond her. He has a very singular phantasy. If he lives frugally, it is not with a view to mortify the flesh, or from a dislike to the grape; if his humility does without a coach and six, it is not from avarice. Ah! for what object then does he husband his resources? What does he with his revenues? Does he bestow them in alms? No! he expends them in the purchase of paintings, expensive furniture, and jewellery. Now, you would naturally expect he bought these things to enjoy them while he lived?—No such thing; he only seeks to swell the inventory of his effects when he shall be no more.

Oh! impossible! cried Zambullo: such a madman as you describe cannot exist on the earth! I repeat, nevertheless, replied the Devil, that such is his mania. The only pleasure he derives from these things is in the imagination of how they will figure in his said inventory. Does he buy, for instance, a superbly inlaid cabinet; it is neatly packed upon the instant, and carefully stowed away; that it may appear quite new in the eyes of the brokers who may come when he is dead to bargain for his relics.

I will show you one of his neighbours that you will think quite as mad as he,—an old bachelor, recently arrived from the Philippine Isles, with an enormous fortune which he derived from his father, who was auditor of the court at Manilla: his conduct is extraordinary enough. You may see him daily in the antechambers of the king, or of the prime minister. Do not fancy, however, that it is ambition which leads him there, to solicit some important charge: he seeks no employment; he asks for nothing. What then! you will say to me, does he go there simply to pay his devoirs? Colder still! He never speaks to the minister, to whom indeed he is not even known, nor does he desire to be so. What then is his object?—I will tell you. He wishes to persuade the world of his credit at Court.

An amusing original indeed! cried the Student, bursting with laughter; he takes great pains to little purpose, truly: you may well place him in the list of madmen. Oh! as to that, replied Asmodeus, I shall shew you many others whom it would be unreasonable to think more wise. For instance, look in yonder house, so splendidly illumined, and you will perceive three men and two ladies sitting round a table. They have just supped together, and they are now playing at cards to while away the night, with which only will they leave their occupation. Such is the life these gentle cavaliers and ladies lead. They meet regularly every evening, and break up like fogs only with the sun; when they retire to sleep until darkness again calls them to light and life: they have renounced the face of day and the beauties of nature. Would not one say, to behold them thus surrounded with waxen tapers, that they were corpses, waiting for the last sad offices that are rendered to the dead? There is no necessity to shut those people from the world, said Don Cleophas;—they have ceased to belong to it.

I perceive in the arms of sleep, resumed the Cripple, a man whom I esteem, and who is also attached devotedly to me,—a being formed in my own mould. He is an old bachelor, who idolises the fair sex. You cannot speak to him of. a pretty woman, without remarking the delight with which he hears you; if you say that her mouth is small, her lips rubies, her teeth pearls, her cheeks roses on an alabaster vase; in a word, if you paint her in detail, at every stroke he sighs and lifts his eyes, and is visibly excited by his voluptuous imagination. Only two days ago, passing the shop of a ladies' shoemaker, he stopped to look with admiration on a pair of diminutive slippers which were there exposed. After contemplating them for some time, with more attention than they deserved, he exclaimed with a languishing air, to a cavalier who accompanied him: Ah! my friend; there now are slippers which enchant my soul! what darling feet for which they were made! I look on them with too much interest: let us away! the very atmosphere around this place is dangerous.

We may mark that gentleman with black, at all events, said Leandro Perez. We may indeed, replied the Devil; and you may tar his nearest neighbour with the same brush, while you are about it—an original of an auditor, who, because he keeps a carriage, blushes whenever he is obliged to put his foot into a public vehicle. He again may be worthily paired with one of his own relations, a wealthy dignitary of the church here, who almost always rides in a hired coach, in order to save two very neat ones, and four splendid mules, which he keeps in his stables.

In the immediate neighbourhood of the auditor and our amatory bachelor, I discover a man to whom, without injustice, no one could deny his title to a strait waistcoat. There he is—a cavalier of sixty, making love to a damsel of sixteen. He visits her daily, and thinks to win her affections by a recital of the conquests of his youth; he hopes that she will love him now for the charms of which he formerly could boast.

We may place in the same category with the aged swain, another who is sleeping about ten paces from us—a French count, who came to Madrid to see the court of Spain. This old gentleman, who is nearly seventy years of age, shone with great lustre in the court of his own sovereign, fifty years ago; he was indeed perfectly the rage; all the world envying his manly form, his gallant deportment, and above all the exquisite taste which he displayed in his apparel. He scrupulously preserved the dresses so much admired, and has continued to wear them on all occasions despite the changes of fashion, which in Paris occur every day. What, however, is most amusing in the matter is, that he fancies himself at this time as graceful and attractive as in the days of his youth.

There is not the slightest doubt, said Don Cleophas, that we may book a place in the Casa de los locos for this French signor. I must reserve another though, replied the Demon, for a lady who resides in a garret, next to the count's mansion. She is an elderly widow, who, from excess of affection for her children, has had the kindness to make over to them all her property; reserving only a small stipend for herself, which, with proper filial gratitude, they take good care never to pay.

I have another subject for the same establishment, in a youth of family, who no sooner has a ducat than he spends it; and who, as he cannot do without the ready, is capable of anything to obtain it. A fortnight ago, his washerwoman, to whom he owed thirty pistoles, came to dun him for that sum, stating that she wanted it particularly, as she was going to be married to a valet-de-chambre, who sought her hand. You must have more money than this, said he, for where the devil is the valet-de-chambre who would take you to wife for thirty pistoles? Oh! yes, replied the sudorific dame, I have two hundred ducats besides. The deuce! replied our hero, with emotion —two hundred ducats! You have only to give them to me, I will marry you myself, and we may then cry quits. He was taken at his word, and the laundress became his wife.

We must retain three places also for the same number of persons, whom you see returning from supper at a celebrated countess's, and now stopping before that house on the left, where they at present reside. One is a nobleman of an inferior grade, who piques himself on his passion for the belles lettres; the second is his brother, your ambassador to Timbuctoo, or some such place; and the third is their foster-brother, a literary toady who follows in their train. They are almost always together, and especially when visiting in the clique to which they belong. The noble praises himself only; the ambassador praises his brother and himself also; but the toady has three things to look after,—the praises of the other two, and the mixing of his own praises with theirs.

Two places more! One for a floricultural citizen, who, scarcely gaining his own bread, must need keep a gardener and his wife to look after a dozen plants that languish at his suburban villa; the other for an actor, who, complaining the other day to his brethren on the disagreeables inseparable from a strolling life, observed: Well, my friends, I am utterly disgusted with my profession; yes, so much so, that I would rather be a humble country gentleman with a thousand ducats a year.

On whichever side I turn my eyes, continued the Spirit, I see nothing but addled brains. There, for instance, is a chevalier of Calatrava, who is so proud, or rather vain, of being privately encouraged by the daughter of a noble signor, that he thinks himself on a par with the first persons of the court. He reminds me of Villius, who thought himself son-in-law of Sylla, because he was on good terms with the daughter of that dictator; and the resemblance is the more striking, because this chevalier, like the Roman, has a Longarenus; that is to say, a rival of low degree, who, nevertheless, is still more favoured by the lady than himself.

One would be inclined to affirm that the same men are born anew from time to time, but under other circumstances. I recognize, in that secretary of department, Bollanus, who kept measures with nobody, and who affronted all whose appearance was, at first sight, unpleasing to him. I behold again, in that old president, Fufidius, who lent his money at five per cent. per month; and Marsœus, who gave his paternal mansion to the actress Origo, lives once more in that noble stripling, who is spending with a dancer of the ballet the proceeds of a country seat which he has near the Escurial.

Asmodeus was about to continue, when, suddenly hearing the sound of instruments which were tuning in the neighbourhood, he stopped, and said to Don Cleophas: There are musicians at the end of this street, who are just commencing a serenade in honour of the daughter of an alcade de corte; if you would like to witness this piece of gallantry, you have only to say so. I am a great admirer of this sort of concert, replied Zambullo let us by all means get near them; there may chance to be some decent voices among the lot. He had hardly spoken, when he found himself on a house adjoining that of the alcade.

Illustration: List, while the thousand charms I sing, Which round thee such enchantment fling, That even Love has plumed his wing To seek thy bower.

The serenade was commenced by the instruments alone, which played some new Italian airs; and then two of the voices sang alternately the following couplets:

 

List, while the thousand charms I sing,
Which round thee such enchantment fling,
That even Love has plumed his wing
To seek thy bower.

 

Thy neck, that shames the mountain snow,
Thy lip, that mocks the peach's glow,
Bid Cupid's self a captive bow
Beneath thy power.

 

Thine arched brows as bows are bent
To speed the shafts thine eyes have sent;
E'en armed Love's own mail is rent,
Resisting them.

 

Thou art, in sooth, a queenly maid;
Yet hast thou every heart betray'd,
That thee its trusting pole-star made;
Thou priceless gem!

 

Oh! would that I some spell possess'd,
While painting thee, to touch thy breast;
Thou evening star, thou heaven of rest,
Thou morning sun!

 

[Si de tu hermosura quieres
Una copia con mil gracias;
Escucha, porque pretendo
El pintarla.

 

Es tu frente toda nieve
Y el alabastro, batallas
Oflreciò al Amor, haziendo
En ella vaya.

 

Amor labrò de tus cejas
Dos arcos para su aljava:
Y debaxo ha descubierto
Quien le mata.

 

Eres duena de el Lugar
Vandolera de las almas,
Iman de los alvedrios,
Linda alhaja.

 

Un rasgo de tu hermosura
Quisiera yo retratarla;
Que es estrella, es cielo, es sol;
No es sino el alva.]

 

The couplets are gallant and delicate, cried the Student. They seem so to you, replied the Demon, because you are a Spaniard: if they were translated into French, for instance, they would not be greatly admired. The readers of that nation would think the expressions too figurative; and would discover an extravagance of imagination in the conceptions, which would be to them absolutely laughable. Every nation has its own standard of taste and genius, and will admit no other: but enough of these couplets, continued he, you will hear music of another kind.

Follow with your eyes those four men who have suddenly appeared in the street. See! they pounce upon the serenaders: the latter raise their instruments to defend their heads, but their frail bucklers yield to the blows which fall on them, and are shattered into a thousand pieces. And now see, coming to their assistance, two cavaliers; one of whom is the gallant donor of the serenade. With what fury they charge on the four aggressors! Again, with what skill and valour do these latter receive them. What fire sparkles from their swords! See! one of the defenders of the serenade has fallen,—it is he who gave it,—he is mortally wounded. His companion, perceiving his fall, flies to preserve his own life; the aggressors, having effected their object, fly also; the musicians have disappeared during the combat; and there remains upon the spot the unfortunate cavalier alone, who has paid for his gallantry with his life. In the meanwhile, observe the alcade's daughter: she is at her window, whence she has observed all that has passed. This lady is so vain of her beauty,—although that is nothing extraordinary either,—that instead of deploring its fatal effect, she rejoices in the force of her attractions, of which she now thinks more than ever.

This will not be the end of it. You see another cavalier, who has this moment stopped in the street to assist, were it possible, the unfortunate being who is swimming in his blood. While occupied in this charitable office, see! he is surprised by the watch. They are taking him to prison, where he will remain many months: and he will almost pay as dearly for this transaction as though he were the murderer himself.

This is, indeed, a night of misfortunes! said Zambullo. And this will not be the last of them, added the Devil. Were you, this moment, at the Gate of the Sun, you would be horror-stricken at the spectacle which is now exhibiting. Through the negligence of a domestic, a mansion is on fire, which in its rage has already reduced to ashes the magnificent furniture it contains, and threatens to consume the whole building; but great as might be his loss, Don Pedro de Escolano, to whom the house belongs, would not regret it for a moment, could he but save his only daughter, Seraphina, who is likely to perish in the flames.

Don Cleophas expressing the greatest anxiety to see this fire, the Cripple transported him in an instant to the Gate of the Sun, and placed him in a house exactly opposite to that which was burning.

 

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