The Devil on Two Sticks - CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVII
IN WHICH ORIGINALS ARE SEEN OF WHOM COPIES ARE RIFE

OBSERVE, in the first place, that troop of beggars which you see already in the street. They are libertines, mostly of good birth, who, like the monks, live on the principle of community of property; and who pass their nights in debauch at their haunts, where they are at all times well supplied with bread, meat, and wine. They are about to separate, each to perform his part in the churches of this godly city; and to-night, when reassembled, they will drink to the charitable fools who piously contribute to their orgies. You cannot but admire these scoundrels, who so well know the semblances which art adopts to inspire pity: why, coquettes are less adept to elicit love.

Look at those three rogues who are walking off together. He who, leaning upon crutches, trembles as he moves, and seems to halt with pain,—who, as he hobbles on, you would momentarily think must fall upon his face,—despite his long white beard and wrinkled front, he is a youthful scamp, so strong and swift, would head the hunted deer. The one beside him, with that awful scald, is a graceful adolescent, whose head is covered with a bladder skin which hides as beauteous curls as ever adorned a courtly page. The third, who gyrates in a bowl, is a comic rascal, that can bring such lamentable noises from his stomach as to move the bowels of all ancient ladies, who even hasten from the topmost floors to his relief.

While these mummers, under the mask of poverty, prepare to cheat the public into charity, I observe hosts of worthy artisans, who, Spaniards though they be, are on the road to earn their bread by the sweat of their careworn brows. On all sides you may behold men rising from their beds, or dressing hastily, that they may begin anew their various parts upon this busy stage. How many projects formed in the visionary night are about to be carried into execution, or to vanish with the sober light of morn! What schemes prompted by love, by interest, or ambition, are about to be attempted!

What see I in the street? interrupted Don Cleophas. Who is that woman loaded with saintly medals, who walks, preceded by a footman, in such anxious haste? She has some pressing business in hand, beyond a doubt. Indeed she has, replied the Devil: she is a venerable matron, hurrying to a neighbouring house where her ministry is suddenly required. She seeks a fair comedian who suffers for the fault of Eve, and near whom are a brace of cavaliers in sore perplexity. One of these is her spouse, and the other a noble friend, who is greatly interested as to the result: for the labours of your actresses resemble those of Alcmena; there being ever a Jupiter and an Amphitryon who share in their production.

Would not one swear now, to look on that mounted cavalier, carrying a carbine in his hand, that he was a sportsman about to war with the hares and partridges who besiege the neighbourhood of Madrid? Nevertheless, it is no love of shooting which calls him forth so early: he is after other game; and is bent towards a village, where he will disguise himself as a peasant, that he may enter, without suspicion, the farm where his mistress resides, under the vigilant eye of an experienced mother.

That young graduate, passing along with such enormous strides, is going, according to his daily custom, to inquire after the health of an aged canon, his uncle, whose prebendary he has in his eye. Do you see, in that house opposite to us, a man putting on his cloak, evidently preparing to go out? He is an honest and rich citizen, whom a matter of grave interest has kept awake all night. He has an only daughter, of marriageable years, and he is unable to make up his mind whether he shall give her hand to a young attorney who solicits it, or to a proud hidalgo who demands it; and he is therefore going to consult his friends on the subject: in truth, he may well feel embarrassed. He is justly alarmed lest, by resolving on the gentleman, he should have a son-in-law who would despise him ; and on the other hand he fears, that if he decide for the attorney, he will introduce into his house a worm which will consume all that it contains.

Look at the neighbour of this anxious parent. You may perceive, in that house so magnificently furnished, a man in a dressing-gown of scarlet brocade, embroidered with flowers of gold : there is a wit for you, who affects the lord in spite of his lowly origin. Ten years ago, he had not twenty maravedis wherewith to bless himself ; and now, he boasts an annual revenue of ten thousand ducats. His equipage is in the best taste; but he keeps it on the savings of his table; whose frugality is such that he generally picks his chicken by himself. Sometimes, however, his ostentation compels him to regale his illustrious friends: to-day, for instance, he gives a dinner to some councillors of state; and, in anticipation, he has just sent for a pastry-cook, with whom he will haggle for a maravedi, before he agrees with him on the bill of fare, which it will be his next care to display to advantage. You are describing a scaly villain, indeed! cried Zambullo. Oh! as to that, replied Asmodeus, all beggars whom fortune suddenly enriches become either misers or spendthrifts: it is the rule.

Tell me, said the Student, who is that lovely woman at her toilet, talking with that handsome cavalier? Ah! truly, exclaimed the Cripple, you have hit on a subject which well deserves your attention. The lady is a German widow, who lives at Madrid on her dower, and who visits in the best society ; and the young man who is with her is the signor Don Antonio de Monsalva.

This cavalier, although a member of one of the noblest families in Spain, has pledged himself to the widow to espouse her ; he has even given her a conditional promise of forfeiture to the amount of three thousand pistoles. He is, however, crossed in his love by his relations, who threaten to confine him if he do not immediately break off all connexion with the fair German, whom they look upon as an adventurer. The gallant, mortified to find his friends all thus opposed to his design, went yesterday evening to his mistress, who, perceiving his uneasiness, asked him its cause. This, after some hesitation, he told her, assuring her at the same time that whatever obstacles his family might raise, nothing should shake his constancy. The widow appeared delighted at his firmness, and they parted at midnight highly satisfied with each other.

Monsalva has returned this morning, as you see, to pay his devoirs to the lady, whom finding at her toilet, he used every effort to beguile the time by new protestations of devotion. During the conversation, his Saxon mistress was releasing her auburn curls from the papers which had confined them during the night; and our cavalier, happening to take up one of these, heedlessly unfolded it, and, to his great surprise, observed therein his own hand-writing. What! madam, said he, smiling, is this the use you make of these pledges of my affection? Yes! Monsalva, replied the lady; you behold the value that I put upon the promises of lovers who would marry me in opposition to their friends; they make excellent papillotes. When, indeed, the cavalier discovered that it was his pledge of forfeiture which his mistress had thus destroyed, he was filled with admiration at this unlooked—for proof of disinterestedness, and he is now very properly vowing to her for the thousandth time, eternal fidelity.

Illustration: During the conversation, his Saxon mistress was releasing her auburn curls from the papers which had confined them during the night

Cast your eyes, continued the Devil, upon that tall man who is passing beneath us; he has a large commonplace book under his arm, an ink-bottle hanging at his girdle, and a guitar slung at his back. He is an odd-looking fellow indeed, cried the Student: I would lay my life he is an original. It is beyond a doubt, replied the Demon, that he is a curious compound enough. There are such things as cynical philosophers in Spain; and there goes one. He is walking towards the Buen-Retiro, to reach a meadow in which there is a fountain, whose refreshing waters form a brook that glides like a silver serpent through the flowers. There will he pass the day, contemplating the beauties of nature, tinkling his guitar, and noting the reflections that the scene inspires in his commonplace book. He carries in his pockets his ordinary food, that is to say, a piece of bread and some onions.

Such is the sober life that he has led during ten years past; and were some Aristippus to say to him, as was erst spoken to Diogenes: If thou knewest how to pay thy court to the great, thou wouldst not eat onions; this modern philosopher would reply: I could pay my court to the great as well as thou, if I would abase one man so low, as to make him cringe before another.

In truth, however, this philosopher formerly mixed greatly with the nobility; he even owes his fortune to their patronage; but, compelled to feel, as all must who move among persons more exalted than themselves, that the friendship of these lordlings was to him but an honourable species of servitude, he broke off all connection with them. At the time I speak of he kept his carriage; this he subsequently put down, on reflecting that, as he rolled along, the mud from his wheels was splashed perhaps upon his betters. Distributing his wealth among his indigent friends, he reserved for himself no more than would enable him to live as moderately as he does; and he kept so much, only because it appeared to him no less shameful for a philosopher to beg his bread from the people than from the aristocracy.

Pity the cavalier who follows this philosopher, and whom you see accompanied by a dog. He can boast his descent from one of the most ancient and noble houses of Castile. He has been rich; but he ruined himself, like the Timon of Lucian, by feasting his friends every day; and, particularly, by giving splendid fetes on the births and marriages of all the princes and princesses of Spain; in a word, on every occasion for rejoicing that he could make or find. No sooner did the discreet parasites who flocked round him see the ring slip over his purse than they abandoned his house and himself; one friend alone remains faithful to him now;—it is his dog.

Tell me! signor Asmodeus, cried Leandro Perez; to whom belongs the carriage stopping before that house? It is the property of a rich contador, who comes here every morning to visit a frail beauty, whom this ancient sinner of Moorish race protects, and whom he loves to distraction. He learned last night that his female friend had been unfaithful, and in the fury which this intelligence induced, he wrote her a letter full of reproaches and threats. You would never guess what part the lady took on this occasion instead of having the impudence to deny the fact, she sent to the treasurer this morning, owning that he was justly angered at her conduct; that he ought henceforth to despise her, since she had been capable of deceiving so gallant a lover; that she acknowledged and detested her fault; and that, to punish herself, she had already sacrificed those locks which he had so often admired; in short, that she had resolved to consecrate, in a nunnery, the remainder of her days to repentance.

The old dotard was unable to withstand the well-feigned remorse of his mistress, and has risen thus early to console her. He found her in tears; and so well has she played her part that he has just assured her of a full pardon for the past: nay, more, to compensate for the sacrifice of her much prized tresses, he is, at this moment, promising to enable her to cut a figure in the world, by purchasing for her a handsome country-house, which is just about to be sold, near the Escurial.

All the shops are opened, I perceive, said the Student; and I observe already a cavalier now entering a tavern. That cavalier, replied Asmodeus, is a youth of family, who is troubled with the prevailing mania for writing nonsense, that he may pass as an author. He is not absolutely without talent; he has even enough to enable him to detect its want in the dramas which are at present produced on your stage; but not so much as to qualify him to write a tolerable one himself. He has gone into that house to order a grand repast: he gives a dinner to-day to four comedians, whose good graces he would purchase in favour of a wretched comedy of his concoction, which he is on the point of presenting to their company. What will not money do?

Apropos of authors, continued the Devil, there now are two just meeting in the street. Do you notice the mocking style of their salutes? They despise each other thoroughly; and they are right. One of them writes as easily as the poet Crispinus, whom Horace compares to the bellows of a forge; and the other wastes a vast deal of time in composing works as cold and insipid as a water ice.

Who is the little man descending from his carriage at the door of that church? asked Zambullo. He is a person worthy your remark, replied the Cripple. It is not yet ten years since he abandoned the office of a notary, in which he was senior clerk, to shut himself up in the Carthusian monastery of Saragoza. At the end of a six-months' noviciate, however, he left the convent, and re—appeared in Madrid; where those who had formerly known him were amazed to see him all at once become one of the principal members of the Council of the Indies. His sudden fortune is still the wonder of the town. Some say he has sold himself to the Devil; others that he is the beloved of some rich dowager; and some, again, insist that he must have found a treasure. Well! you know all about it, of course, interrupted Don Cleophas. I should wonder if I did not, replied the Demon; but I will unveil this mystery for you.

During his aforesaid noviciate, it happened one day that our intended monk, in digging a deep hole in his appointed garden, lighted on a brazen coffer, which he opened, of course, and within which he found a golden casket containing some thirty diamonds of the purest water. Although the pious horticulturist knew little enough of precious stones, he shrewdly suspected that whoever had placed them there was wiser; so resolving on the course which, in one of the comedies of Plautus, is adopted by Gripus, who abandons fishing when he has found a treasure, he threw off his gown, returned to Madrid, and by the assistance of a friendly jeweller, transmuted his diamonds into pieces of gold, and his pieces of gold into an office which has procured for him an exalted station in society.

 

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