The Devil on Two Sticks - CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XII
OF THE TOMBS, OF THEIR SHADES, AND OF DEATH

ASMODEUS now said to the Student: Before we continue our observations on the living, we will for a few moments disturb the peaceful rest of those who lie within this church. I will glance over all the tombs; reveal the secrets they contain, and the feelings which have prompted their elevation.

The first of those which are on our right contains the sad remains of a general officer, who, like another Agamemnon, on his return from the wars found an Ægisthus in his house; in the second, reposes a young cavalier of noble birth, who, desirous of displaying in the sight of his mistress his strength and skill at a bull-fight, was gored to death by his furious opponent; and in the third lies an old prelate who left this world rather unceremoniously. He had made his will in the vigour of health—and was imprudent enough to read it to his domestics, whom, like a good master, he had not forgotten: his cook was in a hurry to receive his legacy.

In the fourth mausoleum rests a courtier who never rested in his lifetime. Even at sixty years of age, he was daily seen in attendance on the king, from the levee until his majesty retired for the night: in recompence for all these attentions the king loaded him with favours. And was he, now, said Don Cleophas, the man to use his influence for others? For no one, replied the Devil: he was liberal of his promises of service to his friends, but he was religiously scrupulous of never keeping them. The scoundrel! exclaimed Leandro. Were we to think of lopping off the superfluous members of society,—men that like tumours on the body politic draw all its nourishment to themselves, it is with courtiers like this one would begin.

The fifth tomb, resumed Asmodeus, encloses the mortal remains of a signor, ever zealous for the interests of his country, and jealous of the glory of the king his master, in whose service he spent the best years of his life as ambassador to Rome or France, to England or Portugal. He ruined himself so effectually by his embassies that he did not leave behind him enough to defray the expenses of his funeral, which the king has therefore paid out of gratitude for his services.

Let us turn to the monuments on the other side. The first is that of a great merchant who left enormous wealth to his children; but, lest they should forget, in its flood, the humble source from which it, like themselves, was derived, he directed that his name and occupation should be graven on his tomb, to the no small annoyance of his descendants.

The next tomb, which surpasses every other in the church for its magnificence, is regarded with much admiration by all travellers. In truth, said Zambullo, it appears to me deserving of its reputation. I am absolutely enchanted by those two kneeling figures—how exquisitely are they chiselled! Not Phidias himself could have surpassed the sculpture of this splendid work! But tell me, dear Asmodeus, what in their lives were those whom these all-breathing marbles represent?

The Cripple replied: You behold a duke and his noble spouse: the former was grand chamberlain to his majesty, and the duchess was celebrated for her extreme piety. I must, however, relate to you an anecdote of her grace, which you will think rather lively for a devotee;—it is as follows.

She had been for a long time in the habit of confessing her sins to a monk of the order of Mercy, one Don Jerome d'Aguilar, a good man, and a famous preacher, with whom she was highly satisfied, when there suddenly appeared at Madrid a Dominican, who captivated the town by the novelty of his style, and the comfortable doctrines on which he insisted. This new orator was named the brother Placidus: the people flocked to his sermons as to those of Cardinal Ximenes; and as his reputation grew, the court, led to hear him by curiosity, became more loud in his praises than the town.

Our duchess at first made it a point of honour to hold out against the renown of the new-comer, nor could even curiosity induce her to go to hear him, that she might judge for herself of his eloquence. She acted thus from a desire to prove to her spiritual director, that like a good and grateful penitent, she sympathised with him in the chagrin which the presence of brother Placidus must have caused him. But the Dominican made so much noise, that at last she yielded to the temptation of seeing him, still however assured of her own fidelity: she saw him, heard him preach, liked him, followed him; and the little inconstant absolutely formed the project of putting herself under his direction.

It was, however, necessary to get rid of her old confessor, and this was not an easy matter; a spiritual guide cannot be thrown off like a lover; a devotee would not like to be thought a coquette, or to lose the esteem of the director whom she abandons; so what did the duchess? She sought Don Jerome, and with an air of sorrow which spoke a real affliction, said to him: Father, I am in despair: you see me in amazement;—in a grief,—in a perplexity of mind which I cannot depict. What ails you then, Madam? replied d'Aguilar. Would you believe it? she replied; my husband, who has ever had the most perfect confidence in my virtue, after having seen me for so long a time under your guidance, has, without appearing in the least suspicious of myself, become suddenly jealous of you, and desires that you may no longer be my confessor. Did you ever hear of a similar caprice? In vain have I objected that by his suspicions he insulted not only myself, but a man of the strictest piety, freed from the tyranny of the passions; I only increased his jealous fears by my vindication of your sacred honour.

Don Jerome, despite his shrewdness, was taken in by this story: it is true that it was told with such demonstrations of candour as would have deceived all the world. Although sorry to lose a penitent of such importance, he did not fail to exhort her to obey her husband's will; but the eyes of his Reverence were opened at last, and the trick discovered, when he learned that the lady had chosen brother Placidus as his successor.

After the grand chamberlain and his cunning spouse, continued the Devil, comes a more modest tomb, which has only recently received the ill-assorted remains of a president of the council of the Indies and his young wife. This president, in his sixty-third year, married a girl of twenty: he had by a former wife two children, whom he was about to leave penniless, when a fit of apoplexy carried him off; and his wife died twenty-four hours after him from vexation at his not having lived three days longer.

And now we have arrived at the most respectable monument this church contains. For it every Spaniard has as much veneration, as the Romans had for the tomb of Romulus. Of what great personage, then, does it contain the ashes? asked Leandro Perez. Of a prime minister of Spain, replied Asmodeus; and never did that monarchy possess his equal. The king left, with confidence, the cares of government to this great man; who so worthily acquitted himself of the charge, that monarch and subjects were equally contented. Under his ministry the state was ever flourishing, and its people happy; for his maxims of government were founded on the sure principles of humanity and religion. Still, although his life was blameless, he was not free from apprehension at his death,—the responsibility of his office might indeed make the best of mortals tremble.

In a corner, a little beyond the tomb of this worthy minister, you may discern a marble tablet placed against one of the columns. Say! shall I open the sepulchre beneath it, and display before your eyes all that remains of a lowly maiden who perished in the flower of her youth, when her modest beauty won for her the love and admiration of all who beheld her? It has returned to its primeval dust, that fragile form, which in its life possessed so dangerous a beauty as to keep her fond parent in continual alarm, lest its bright temptation should expose her to the wiles of the seducer:—a misfortune which might have befallen had she lived much longer, for already was she the idol of three young cavaliers, who, inconsolable for her loss, died shortly afterwards by their own hands. Their tragical history is engraven in letters of gold on the stone I shewed you, with three little figures which represent the despairing lovers in the act of self-destruction: one is draining a glass of poison; another is falling on his sword; and the third is tying a cord about his neck, having chose to die by hanging.

Illustration: She was the idol of three young cavaliers, who, inconsolable for her loss, died shortly afterwards by their own hands

The Demon finding that the Student laughed with all his might at this sorrowful story, and that the idea of the three figures thus depicted on the maiden's monument amused him, said: Since you find food for mirth in the artist's imagination, I am almost in the mind to carry you this moment to the banks of the Tagus, and there shew you a monument erected by the will of a dramatic author, in the church of a village near Almaraz, whither he had retired, after having led a long and joyous life at Madrid. This scribe had produced a vast number of comedies full of ribald wit and low obscenity; but repenting of his outrages upon decency ere he died, and desirous of expiating the scandal they had caused, he directed that they should carve upon his tomb a sort of pile, composed of books, bearing the names of the various pieces he had written, and that beside it they should place the image of Modesty, who, with lighted torch, should be about to consign them to the flames.

Besides the dead whose monuments I have described to you, there are within this church an infinity of others without a stone to mark the spot where their ashes repose. I see their shades wandering solemnly around: they glide along, passing and repassing one after another before us, without disturbing the profound quiet which reigns in this holy place. They speak not; but I read in their silence all their thoughts. I am annoyed without measure, exclaimed Don Cleophas, that I cannot, like you, have the pleasure of beholding them? That pleasure I can give you then, replied Asmodeus; nothing is more easy. The Demon just touched the Student's eyes, and by a delusion caused him to perceive a great number of pallid spectres.

As he looked on these apparitions, Zambullo trembled. What! said the Devil to him, you are agitated! Is it with fear of these ghostly visitants? Let not their ghastly apparel alarm you! Look at it well! It will adorn your own majestic person some of these days. It is the uniform of the shades: collect yourself, and fear nothing. Is it possible your assurance can fail you now,—you, who have had the daring to look on me? These gentry are harmless compared with myself.

The Student, at these words, recalling his wonted courage, looked on the phantoms with tranquillity; which the Demon perceiving: Bravo! said he. Well! now, he continued, regard these shadows with attention! You will perceive that the occupant of the stately mausoleum is confounded with the inhabitant of the unstoned grave. The ranks by which they were distinguished in their lives died with them; and the grand chamberlain and the prime minister are no more now than the lowliest citizen that moulders in this church. The greatness of these noble shades ended with their days, as that of the strutting hero of a tragedy falls with the curtain.

I have a remark to make, interrupted Leandro. I see a lonely spirit hovering about, and seeming to shun all contact with his fellows. Rather say, replied the Demon, and you will speak the truth, that his fellows shun all company with him: and what now think you is that poor ghost. He was an old notary, who had the vanity to be buried in a leaden coffin; which has so offended the self-love of the more humble tenants of the surrounding tombs, that they resolved to black-ball him, and will not therefore permit his shade to mix with theirs.

I have another observation yet to make, resumed Don Cleophas. Two shadows just now, on meeting, stopped for a moment to look upon each other, and then passed each on his way. They are, or rather were, two intimate friends, replied the Devil; one was a painter, and the other a musician: they both drew their inspiration from the bottle; but were, otherwise, honest fellows enough. It is worthy of note that they both brushed off in the same year; and when their spirits meet, struck by the remembrance of their former delights, they say to each other by their sorrowful but expressive silence: Ah! my friend, we shall drink no more.

Grammercy! cried the Student, what do I see. At the other end of the church are two spirits, who are passing along together, but badly matched. Their forms and manners are immensely different: one is of enormous height, and moves with corresponding gravity, while the other is of dwarf-like stature, and passes o'er the ground like a breath. The giant, replied the Cripple, was a German, who lost his life in a debauch, by drinking three healths with tobacco mixed inadvertently in his wine; and the little ghost is that of a Parisian, who, with the gallantry belonging to his countrymen, was imprudent enough, on entering this very church, to present the holy water to a young lady who was leaving it: as a reward for his politeness, he was saluted on the same day with the contents of a carbine, which left him here a moral for all too attentive Frenchmen.

For myself, continued Asmodeus, I have been looking at three spirits which I discerned among the crowd; and I must tell you by what means they were separated from their earthly companions. They animated the charming forms of as many female performers, who made as much noise at Madrid, in their time, as did Origo, Cytheris and Arbuscula, in theirs, at Rome; and, like their said prototypes, they possessed the exquisite art of amusing mankind in public, and of privately ruining the same amiable animal. But, alas! all things must have an end, and these were the finales of those celebrated ladies; one died suddenly of envy, at an apoplectic fit of applause, from the pit, which fell upon a lovely first-night; another found in excessive good cheer, at home, the infallible drop which follows it; and the third, undertaking the dangerous character, for an actress, of a vestal, became so excited with her part that she died of a miscarriage behind the scenes.

But we will leave to their repose (!) all these shades, again continued the Demon; we have passed them sufficiently in review. I will now present to your sight a spectacle which, as a man, must impress you with a deeper feeling than the sight of the dead. I am about, by the same power which has rendered the shades of the departed visible to your sight, to present to you the vision of Death himself. Yes! you shall behold that insatiable enemy of the human race, who prowls unceasingly in the haunts of man, unperceived by his victims; who surrounds the earth, in his speed, in the twinkling of an eye; and who strikes, by his power, its most distant inhabitants at the same moment.

Look towards the east! He rises on your sight. A million birds of baneful omen fly before his advent in terror, and announce his presence with funereal cries. His tireless hand is armed with the fatal scythe which mows successive generations as they spring from earth.

But if, as mocking at humanity, on one wing is depicted war, pestilence, famine, shipwreck, conflagration, with other direful modes by which he sweeps upon his prey, the other shews the priests who offer to him daily hecatombs in sport; as youthful doctors, who receive from himself their diplomas, after swearing, in his presence, never to practise surgery or medicine contrary to the rules of the courts.

Although Don Cleophas suspected that all he saw was an illusion, and that it was merely to gratify his taste for the marvellous that the Devil raised this form of Death before his eyes, he could not look on it without trembling. He assumed, however, all the courage he was possessed of, and said to the Demon: This fearful spectre will not, I suppose, pass vainly over Madrid: he will doubtless leave some awful traces of his flight? Yes! certainly, replied the Cripple; he comes not here for nothing; and it depends but on yourself to be the witness of his visitation. I take you at your word, exclaimed the Student; let us follow in his train; let me visit with him the unhappy families on whom he will expend his present wrath. What tears are about to flow! Beyond a doubt, replied Asmodeus; but many which come at convenience. Death, despite his horrors, causes at least as much joy as grief.

Our two spectators took their flight, and followed the grim monarch in his progress. He entered first a modest house, whose owner lay in helpless sickness on his bed; the autocrat but touched the poor man with his scythe, and he expired in the midst of his weeping relations, who instantly commenced an affecting concert of cries and lamentations. There is no mockery here, said the Demon; the wife and children of this worthy citizen loved him with real affection: besides, they depended on him for their bread; and the belly is rarely a hypocrite.

Not so, however, is it in the next house, in which you perceive his grisly majesty now occupied in releasing a bed-ridden old gentleman from his pains. He is an aged counsellor who, having always lived a bachelor of law, has passed his life as badly as he could, that he might leave behind him a good round sum for the benefit of his three nephews, who have flocked round his bed on hearing that he is about to quit it, at last. They of course displayed an extreme affliction, and very well they did it; but are now, you see, letting fall the mask, and are preparing to do their duties as heirs, after having performed their parts as relations. How they will rummage the old gentleman's effects! What heaps of gold and silver will they discover! How delightful! said one of these heart-broken descendants to another, this moment,—how delightful is it for nephews to be blessed with avaricious old uncles, who renounce the pleasures of life for their sakes! A superb funeral oration, said Leandro Perez. Oh! as to that, replied the Devil, the majority of wealthy parents, who live to a good old age, ought not to expect a better from their own children.

While these heritors are joyfully seeking the treasures of the deceased, Death is directing his flight to a large house, in which resides a young nobleman who has the small-pox. This noble, one of the brightest ornaments of the court, is about to perish, just as his star is rising, despite the famed physician who attends him,—or rather because he is attended by this learned doctor.

But see! with what rapidity does the fatal scythe perform its operations. Already has it completed the destiny of the youthful lord, and its unblunted edge is turned elsewhere. It hovers over yonder convent; it darts into its deepest cell, sweeps over a pious monk, and cuts the thread of the penitent and mortifying life that he has led during forty years. Death, all-fearful as he is, had no terrors for this holy man; so, in revenge, he seeks a mansion where his presence will be unwelcome indeed. He flies towards a licentiate of importance, who has only recently been appointed to the bishopric of Albarazin. This prelate is busily occupied with preparations for repairing to his diocese with all the pomp which in our day accompanies the princes of the church. Nevertheless, he is about to take his departure for the other world, where he will arrive with as few followers as the poor monk; and I am not sure that he will be quite as favourably received.

Oh heavens! cried Zambullo; Death stoops upon the palace of the king. Alas! one stroke of his fatal scythe, and all Spain will be plunged in dreadful consternation. Well may you tremble, said the Cripple; for the barbarian has no more respect for kings than for their meanest slaves. But be not alarmed, he added, a moment afterwards, he aims not at the monarch yet; his business now is with a courtier only, one of those noble lords whose only occupation is to swell his master's train: such ministers as these are not exactly those the state can least afford to lose.

But it would seem, replied the Student, that the spectre king is not contented with so mean a prize as the parasite you speak of. See! he hovers still about the royal house; and, this time, near the chamber of the queen. Just so, replied the Devil, and he might be worse employed: he is about to cut the windpipe of an amiable dame who delights to sow divisions in her sovereign's court; and who is now mortally chagrined, because two ladies whom she had cleverly set by the ears, have been unreasonable enough to become sincerely reconciled with each other.

And now, my master, you will hear cries of real affliction, continued the Demon. Death enters that splendid mansion to the left; and a scene as touching as the world's stage offers is about to be acted there. Look, if you can, on the heart-rending tragedy. In truth, said Don Cleophas, I perceive a lady struggling in the arms of her attendants, and tearing her hair with signs of deepest grief. Tell me its cause? Look in the room adjoining, and you will see cause enough, replied the Devil. You observe the man stretched on that stately couch: it is her dying husband,—to her a loss indeed! Their story is affecting, and deserves to be written:—I have a great mind to relate it to you.

You will give me great pleasure in so doing, interrupted Leandro: the sorrows of this world do not move less than its vices and follies amuse me. It is rather long, resumed Asmodeus, but it is too interesting to annoy you on that account. Besides, I will confess to you, that, all Demon as I am, I am sick of following the track of Death: let us leave him in his search of newer victims. With all my heart, replied Zambullo: I am more curious to hear your promised narrative of suffering humanity, than to see my fellow mortals, one after another, hurried into eternity. The Cripple then commenced as follows, after having transported the Student on to the roof of one of the highest houses in the Strada d'Alcala.

 

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