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The Devil on Two Sticks - CHAPTER XVIII


I MUST indulge you with a laugh, continued Asmodeus, at the cost of an amusing character whom you see walking into that coffee-house, over the way. He is a Biscayan physician, and is going to sip his cup of chocolate; after which he will return to his home to pass the day at chess.

While he is thus engaged, do not be alarmed for his patients; he has none: and if he had, the moments he employs in play would not be the worst for them. He moves from his chess-board in the evening to repair to the house of a rich and handsome widow, with whom he would be happy to mate, and for whom he affects a knightly passion. When he is with her, a rascally valet, his only domestic, and who is aware of his practice with the widow, brings him a false list, studded with the names of noble lords and ladies, who have sent to seek the doctor. The lady dreams not he playing false, and the Biscayan is therefore fast entrapping her into a false move, which will win him the game.

But, continued the Devil, let us stop a moment a that house close by; I would have you remark what is passing there before we look elsewhere. Run you eyes over the rooms: what do you observe? Why , I can discern some maidens, whose beauty dazzles me, replied the Student. Some are just leaving their beds, and others have already risen. What charms do they present to my feasting eyes! I can fancy I behold the nymphs of Diana, but more lovely than the poets have depicted them.

If those maidens, as you call them, and whom you admire so much, replied the Cripple, have the graces of Dian's nymphs, they assuredly want their chastity to complete the picture. They are a parcel of good-natured females, who live upon a common fund. As dangerous as the fair damsels of chivalry who arrested, by their charms, the knights who passed before their castle walls, they seek to draw your less heroic youths within their bowers. And woe betide those whom they ensnare! To warn the passer-by of the peril which awaits him, beacons should be set before their doors, as such friendly monitors are placed on dangerous coasts to mark the places mariners should shun.

Illustration: And woe betide those whom they ensnare!

I need not ask you, said Leandro Perez, whither go those signors whom I see lolling in their carriages: they are doubtless going to the levee of the king. You have said it, replied the Devil; and if you also would attend it, I will carry you there before them: we shall have amusement enough, I promise you. You could not have proposed a thing more suited to my taste, replied Zambullo; and I anticipate all the pleasure you have promised me.

The Demon, although eager to satisfy Don Cleophas in his desires, carried him leisurely towards the palace, so that, in their way, the Student, perceiving some workmen employed upon a lofty doorway, asked if it were the portal of a church they were constructing. No, replied Asmodeus, it is the entrance to a new market; and it is magnificent, as you see. However, though they raised its arch until its point were lost in clouds, it would be still unworthy of two Latin lines which are to adorn its front.

What say you? cried Leandro;—what a notion would you give me of the verses that you speak of! I die with anxiety to hear them. I will repeat them, then, replied the Devil; and do you prepare to admire them.


Quam bene Mercurius nunc merces vendit opimas,
Momus ubi fatuos vendidit ante sales!

In these two lines is concealed one of the most delicate puns imaginable. I cannot say I yet perceive its point, said the Student; I do not clearly understand what is referred to by your fatuos sales. You are not then aware, replied the Devil, that on the spot where they are building this market for the sale of provisions, there formerly stood a monkish college in which youth was inducted to the humanities. The rectors of this college were in the habit of getting up plays, in which the students figured on the stage. These plays were, as you may suppose, flat enough as to effect and language; and were enlivened by ballets, so amusingly absurd, that every thing danced, even to preterites and supines. There! that is quite enough, interrupted Zambullo; I am quite alive to the stuff of which college pieces are composed—excuse my pun—but the inscription is admirable.

Asmodeus and Don Cleophas had scarcely reached the grand staircase of the palace, when the courtiers commenced the inflating labour of mounting its polished steps. As they passed our unseen watchers, the Devil did the honour of announcing them to the Student: There, said he, pointing with his finger as he spoke, there is the Count de Villalonso, of the house of Puebla d'Ellerena; this is the Marquis de Castro Fueste; that is Don Lopez de Los Rios, president of the council of finance; and here is the Count de Villa Hombrosa. He did not, however, content himself thus with naming them; each had his legend: and the Demon's sardonic spirit found in the character of each some weakness to laugh at, or some vices to lay bare. None passed before him unnoted.

That signor, said he of one, is affable and obliging; and listens to you with an air of kindness. Do you ask his protection, he grants it freely; nay, proffers you his interest. It is pity that a man who loves so much to assist his fellow creatures should have a memory so bad, that a quarter of an hour after you have spoken to him, he should forget all you have asked and he has promised.

That duke, said he, speaking of another, is one of the best characters that haunts the court. He is not, like most of his equals, one man at this moment and another the next; there is no caprice, no inequality in his disposition. I may add to this, that he pays not with ingratitude the affection that is shewn for him, or the services that are rendered in his behalf. Unfortunately, again, he is too slothful to reward these kindnesses as they deserve: he leaves so long to be desired what is so rightfully expected, that when the favour is at last obtained, it is felt to have been dearly purchased.

After the Demon had thus exhibited to the Student the good and evil qualities of a great number of signors, he conducted him into a room in which there were all sorts and conditions of men, but especially so many chevaliers, that Don Cleophas could not help exclaiming: What numberless knights! By our Lady! there must be enough and to spare of them in Spain. I can answer for that, replied the Cripple; and it is not at all surprising, since to be dubbed companion of St. Jago, or of Calatrava, your vigilants require no five-and-twenty thousand crowns in pocket or estate, as did formerly the knights of ancient Rome: you perceive, therefore, that knighthood is an article most admirably assorted.

Observe, continued the Devil, that common-looking fellow behind us. Hush! interrupted Zambullo; speak softly, or the man will hear you. No, no, replied Asmodeus; the same charm which renders us invisible, prevents our being heard. Examine him well: he is a Catalonian, returned from the Philippines, where he ranged the seas as a pirate. Could you conceive, to look on him, that you beheld a thunderbolt of war? Nevertheless, he has performed, in his vocation, prodigies of valour. He is here this morning, to present a petition to the king, in which he asks, as a recompence for his services, a certain post, which is vacant. I doubt, however, if he will succeed, inasmuch as he has neglected duly to possess the prime-minister with a proper notion of his merits.

I perceive on the right of the pirate, said Leandro Perez, a tall and bulky man, who is sufficiently impressed with an idea of his own importance: to judge of his station by the pride of his bearing, he is some wealthy grandee, certainly. Nothing can be further from the truth, replied the Demon: he is one of the poorest of Hidalgos, who lives on the profits of a gaming table, under the protection of one of the ministers.

But I see a licentiate, who must not pass without your notice: it is he whom you can perceive near the first window, in conversation with a cavalier clad in velvet of a silver grey. They are discoursing of a matter yesterday decided by the king;—but I will tell you its history.

Two months ago, this licentiate, who is an academician of Toledo, published a work on morals, which shocked the orthodox opinions of all your grey-headed authors of Castile: they found it full of vigorous expressions and words newly introduced. It required no more to unite them against so singular a production; and they therefore instantly assembled, and agreed upon a petition to his majesty, praying him to condemn the book as one written in a style dangerous to the purity and simplicity of the Spanish tongue.

The petition appearing worthy of attention to his majesty, he named three commissioners to examine the work; and they estimating its style to be really reprehensible, and the more so from its peculiar brilliancy, upon their report the king has decreed that, under pain of his displeasure, those academicians of Toledo who write after the manner of the licentiate shall not dare to publish another book; and further that, in order to preserve the language of Castile in all its purity, such academicians, after their decease, shall be replaced by persons of the first quality alone.

That is indeed a marvellous decision! cried Zambullo, laughing: the lovers of our vulgar tongue have henceforth nought to fear. Excuse me, replied the Devil; but your writers who endanger that noble chastity of style which forms the delight of all discerning readers, are not confined to the Toledan academy.

Don Cleophas was now curious to learn who was the cavalier in silver-grey habiliments, whom he beheld conversing with the hardy moralist. He, said the Cripple, is a Catalonian, an officer of the Spanish guard, and of course a younger son; but he is a youth whose tongue is pointed as the sword he wears. To give you an example of his wit, I will tell you of a repartee that he made yesterday to a lady whom he met in high society. But to enable you to enjoy its pungency, I must inform you that he has a brother, Don Andrea de Prada, who was, some years since, an officer, like himself, in the same corps.

It happened one day that a farmer of the king's revenues came to this Don Andrea, and said to him: Signor de Prada, I bear the same name as you, but our families are different. I am aware that you belong to one of the noblest houses in Catalonia, but at the same time that you are not rich. Now, I am of a poor family, and have lots of wealth. Can we not find means, therefore, to communicate to each other that which we mutually want? Have you your titles of nobility? Certainly! replied Don Andrea. That being the case, continued the other, if you will confide the documents to my hands, I will place them in those of an ingenious genealogist, who will set to work upon them, and will make us relations in spite of our ancestors. On my part, as in duty bound, I will make my kinsman a present of thirty thousand pistoles: is it a bargain? Don Andrea, dazzled by the proposition, accepted it at once, gave the parchments to the farmer, and with the money he received purchased an estate in his native province, where he now resides at his ease.

His younger brother, who gained nothing by the transaction, was dining yesterday at a house when the conversation turned by chance on the Signor de Prada, farmer of the king's revenues. On this, the lady of whom I spoke, turning to the young officer, asked if the wealthy signor were not related to him No, replied he, I have not that honour; but I believe he is a relation of my brother's.

The Student laughed, as well he might, at this family distinction, which appeared to him rather novel. But perceiving at the moment a little man following a courtier, he cried out: Bah! but yon homunculus will lose nothing for the want of reverence to the signor whom he shadows. He has some precious favour to intreat, beyond all doubt. I shall not occupy your time in vain, replied the Devil, in telling you the object of the obsequiousness you observe. The little man is an honest citizen, who is proprietor of a country house in the suburbs of Madrid, near which are some mineral springs of fashionable celebrity. He has lent this house, rent free, for three months to this signor, that the latter may drink the waters: he is at this moment very humbly beseeching his noble tenant to serve him on a pressing opportunity which offers; and the signor is very politely declining to do so.

I must not let yon cavalier of plebeian race escape me. See, where he wades through the expecting throng with all the air of one of note. He has become immensely rich by force of calculation, and in his proud mansion has as many servants as your first grandee; his table would put to shame for delicacy and abundance that of a minister of state. He has a carriage for himself, one for his wife, and another for his children; and in his stables may be seen the best of mules and the most splendid horses in the world. Only yesterday, he bought, and paid for on the nail, a superb train of noble animals, that the prince of Spain had partially agreed for, but had thought too dear. What insolence! exclaimed Leandro. A Turk, now, who beheld that lump of arrogance, poised on so dangerous a height, would watch each instant for its sudden fall. I know nothing of the time to come, replied Asmodeus, but think your Turk would not be far from right.

Ah! what is that I see? continued the Demon with surprise. Did I wonder at any thing, I should disbelieve my eyes. I absolutely discern within this room a poet—the last whom I should expect to see. How dares he come within these walls?—he who could write in terms offensive to their noblest visitants. He must count indeed on the contempt that he is held in!

But mark particularly that venerable man who enters now, supported by a page. Observe with what respect the crowd divides to make way for him. That is the signor Don José de Reynaste e Ayala, chief magistrate of the police: he comes hither to inform the king of the events of last night in the capital. Methinks, signor Student, that we could assist him in his report! However, regard him with admiration, for he deserves it. In truth, replied Zambullo, he looks like a man of worth. It would be well for Spain, replied the Cripple, if all its corregidors would take him for their model. He has none of that intemperate zeal which urges those who should administer the law to violate its spirit from impetuosity or caprice; and he respects too much the sacred freedom of the person to deprive the meanest of his fellow subjects of that blessed right on the mere information of an alguazil, a clerk, or even a secretary of police. He knows those gentlemen too well; and that, for the most of them, their venal souls will scruple not to traffic on the fund of his authority. When a man stands before him, accused of crime, he may be sure that justice will be done towards him; the evidence is sifted until truth is discovered; and thus the prisons, instead of echoing the sighs of innocence, perform their proper office of holding the guilty. Even these are not abandoned to the licence which ordinarily reigns in gaols. He visits, as a man, those whom, as a magistrate, he has condemned, and is careful that inhumanity, in its dispensers, shall not add rigour to the law.

What an eulogium! exclaimed Leandro;—you paint a man whom angels might agree to worship! You rouse my curiosity to witness his reception by the king. I am annoyed, replied the Devil, to be obliged to tell you of my inability to gratify a wish that I expected, without at least exposing myself to insult. It is not in my vocation, nor am I permitted, to intrude myself on kings; their cabinet is the domain of Leviathan, Belphegor, and Ashtaroth: I informed you, from my bottle, that these three demons preside over the councils of princes. All others of our craft are denied the entrée at court; and I know not what I could have been thinking of, when I offered to bring you here: it was a dangerous flight to take, I can assure you. If my three loving brethren should perceive me, they would shew me no favour, I promise you, and between ourselves, I would rather avoid the conflict.

That being so, replied the Student, let us be off as quickly as you please: I should die with grief to see you curried by those wretched grooms, without being able to help you; for if I lent you a hand I expect you would shine none the brighter for my assistance. Most decidedly not, replied Asmodeus; they would never feel the blows that you could deal them, and you would have the satisfaction of dying under theirs.

But, he continued, to console you for your exclusion from the cabinet of your potent sovereign, I will procure you a pleasure quite equal to the one you lose. And as he finished these words, he took the Student's hand, and away they went, as fast as the Devil could fly, toward the monastery of Mercy.


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