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The Devil on Two Sticks - CHAPTER III


Illustration: They darted through the air like an arrow from a bow

CLEOPHAS found that Asmodeus had not vainly boasted of his agility. They darted through the air like an arrow from the bow, and were soon perched on the tower of San Salvador. Well, Signor Leandro, said the Demon as they alighted; what think you now of the justice of those who, as they slowly rumble in some antiquated vehicle, talk of a devilish bad carriage? I must, hereafter, think them most unreasonable, politely replied Zambullo. I dare affirm that his majesty of Castile has never travelled so easily; and then for speed, at your rate, one might travel round the world nor care to stretch a leg.

You are really too polite, replied the Devil; but, can you guess now why I have brought you here? I intend to show you all that is passing in Madrid; and as this part of the town is as good to begin with as any, you will allow that I could not have chosen a more appropriate situation. I am about, by my supernatural powers, to take away the roofs from the houses of this great city; and notwithstanding the darkness of the night, to reveal to your eyes whatever is doing within them. As he spoke, he extended his right arm, the roofs disappeared, and the Student's astonished sight penetrated the interior of the surrounding dwellings as plainly as if the noon-day sun shone over them. It was, says Luis Velez de Guevara, like looking into a pasty from which a set of greedy monks had just removed the crust.

The spectacle was, as you may suppose, sufficiently wonderful to rivet all the Student's attention. He looked amazedly around him, and on all sides were objects which most intensely excited his curiosity. At length the Devil said to him: Signor Don Cleophas, this confusion of objects, which you regard with an evident pleasure, is certainly very agreeable to look upon; but I must render useful to you what would be otherwise but a frivolous amusement. To unlock for you the secret chambers of the human heart, I will explain in what all these persons that you see are engaged. All shall be open to you; I will discover the hidden motives of their deeds, and reveal to you their unbidden thoughts.

Where shall we begin? See! do you observe this house to my right? Observe that old man, who is counting gold and silver into heaps. He is a miserly citizen. His carriage, which he bought for next to nothing at the sale of an alcade of the Cortes, and which to save expense still sports the arms of its late owner, is drawn by a pair of worthless mules, which he feeds according to the law of the Twelve Tables; that is to say, he gives each, daily, one pound of barley: he treats them as the Romans treated their slaves—wisely, but not too well. It is now two years since he returned from the Indies, bringing with him innumerable bars of gold, which he has since converted into coin. Look at the old fool! with what satisfaction he gloats over his riches. And now, see what is passing in an adjoining chamber of the same house. Do you observe two young men with an old woman? Yes, replied Cleophas, they are probably his children.

No, no! said the Devil, they are his nephews, and, what is better in their opinion, his heirs. In their anxiety for his welfare, they have invited a sorceress to ascertain when death will take from them their dear uncle, and leave to them the division of his spoil. In the next house there are a pair of pictures worth remarking. One is an antiquated coquette who is retiring to rest, after depositing on her toilet, her hair, her eyebrows and her teeth; the other is a gallant sexagenarian, who has just returned from a love campaign. He has already closed one eye, in its case, and placed his whiskers and peruke on the dressing table. His valet is now easing him of an arm and one leg, to put him to bed with the rest.

If I may trust my eyes, cried Zambullo, I see in the next room a tall young damsel, quite a model for an artist. What a lovely form and air! I see, said the Devil. Well! that young beauty is an elder sister of the gallant I have just described, and is a worthy pendant to the coquette who is under the same roof. Her figure, that you so much admire, is really good; but then she is indebted for it to an ingenious mechanist, whom I patronise. Her bust and hips are formed after my own patent; and it is only last Sunday that she generously dropped her bustle at the door of this very church, on the occasion of a charity sermon. Nevertheless, as she affects the juvenile, she has two cavaliers who ardently dispute her favour;—nay, they have even come to blows on the occasion. Madmen! two dogs fighting for a bone.

Prithee, laugh with me at an amateur concert which is performing in a neighbouring mansion; an after-supper offering to Apollo. They are singing cantatas. An old counsellor has composed the air; and the words are by an alguazil, who does the amiable after that fashion among his friends—an ass who writes verses for his own pleasure, and for the punishment of others. A harpsichord and clarionet form the accompaniment; a lanky chorister, who squeaks marvellously, takes the treble, and a young girl with a hoarse voice the bass. What a delightful party! cried Don Cleophas. Had they tried expressly to get up a musical extravaganza, they could not have succeeded better.

Cast your eyes on that superb mansion, continued the Demon; and you will perceive a nobleman lying in a splendid apartment. He has, near his couch, a casket filled with billets-doux; in which he is luxuriating, that the sweet nothings they contain may lull his senses gently to repose. They ought to be dear to him, for they are from a signora he adores; and who so well appreciates the value of her favours, that she will soon reduce him to the necessity of soliciting the exile of a viceroyalty, for his own support. Let us leave them to watch the stir they are making in the next house to the left. Can you distinguish a lady in a bed with red damask furniture? Her name is Donna Fabula. She is of high rank, and is about to present an heir to her spouse, the aged Don Torribio, whom you see by her side, endeavouring to soothe the pangs of his lady until the arrival of the midwife. Is it not delightful to witness so much tenderness? The cries of his dear better-half pierce him to the soul: he is overwhelmed with grief; he suffers as much as his wife. With what care,—with what earnestness does he bend over her! Really, said Leandro, the man does appear deeply affected; but I perceive, in the room above, a youngster apparently a domestic, who sleeps soundly enough: he troubles himself not for the event. And yet it ought to interest him, replied Asmodeus; for the sleeper is the first cause of his mistress's sufferings.

But see,—a little beyond, continued the Demon: in that low room, you may observe an old wretch who is anointing himself with lard. He is about to join an assembly of wizards, which takes place to-night between San Sebastian and Fontarabia. I would carry you thither in a moment, as it would amuse you; but that I fear I might be recognised by the devil who personates the goat.

That devil and you then, said the Scholar, are not good friends? No, indeed! you are right, replied Asmodeus; he is that same Pillardoc of whom I told you. The scoundrel would betray me, and soon inform the magician of my flight. You have perhaps had some other squabble with this gentleman? Precisely so, said the Demon: some ten years ago we had a second difference about a young Parisian who was thinking of commencing life. He wanted to make him a banker's clerk; and I, a lady-killer. Our comrades settled the dispute by making him a wretched monk. This done, they reconciled us: we embraced; and from that time have been mortal foes.

But, have done with this belle assemblée, said Don Cleophas; I am not at all curious to witness it: let us continue our scrutiny into what is before us. What is the meaning of those sparks of fire which issue from yonder cellar? They proceed from one of the most absurd occupations of mankind, replied the Devil. The grave personage whom you behold near the furnace is an alchymist; and the flames are gradually consuming his rich patrimony, never to yield him what he seeks in return. Between ourselves, the philosopher's stone is a chimera that I myself invented to amuse the wit of man, who ever seeks to pass those bounds which the laws of nature have prescribed for his intelligence.

The alchymist's neighbour is an honest apothecary, who you perceive is still at his labours, with his aged wife and assistant. You would never guess what they are about. The apothecary is compounding a progenerative pill for an old advocate who is to be married tomorrow; the assistant is mixing a laxative potion; and the old lady is pounding astringent drugs in a mortar.

I perceive, in the house facing the apothecary's, said Zambullo, a man who has just jumped out of bed, and is hastily dressing. Pshaw! replied the Spirit, he need not hurry himself. He is a physician; and has been sent for by a prelate who since he has retired to rest—about an hour—has absolutely coughed two or three times.

But look a little further, in a garret on the right, and try if you cannot distinguish a man half dressed, who is walking up and down the room, dimly lighted by a single lamp. I see, said the Student; and so clearly that I would undertake to furnish you with an inventory of his chattels,—to wit, a truckle-bed, a three-legged stool, and a deal table; the walls seem to be daubed all over with black paint. That exalted personage, said Asmodeus, is a poet; and what appears to you black paint, are tragic verses with which he has ornamented his apartment, being obliged, for want of paper, to commit his effusions to the wall. By his agitation and phrenzied air, I conclude he is now busily engaged on some work of importance, said Don Cleophas. You are not far out, replied the Devil: he only yesterday completed the last act of an interesting tragedy, intitled The Universal Deluge. He cannot be reproached with having violated the unity of place, at all events, as the entire action is limited to Noah's ark.

I can assure you it is a first-rate drama: all the animals talk as learnedly as the professors. It of course must have been a dedication, upon which he has been labouring for the last six hours; and he is, at this moment, turning the last period. It will be indeed a masterpiece of adulatory composition: every social and political virtue; every grace that can adorn; all that tends to render man illustrious, either by his own deeds, or those of his ancestors, are attributed to its object;—never was praise more lavishly bestowed, never was incense burnt more liberally. For whom, then, of all the world, is so magnificent an apotheosis intended? Why, replied the Demon, the poet himself has not yet determined that; he has put in everything but the name. However, he hopes to find some vain noble who may be more liberal than those to whom he has dedicated his former productions; although the purchasers of imaginary virtues are becoming every day more rare. It is not my fault that it is so; for it is a fault corrected in the wealthy patrons of literature, and a great benefit rendered to the public, who were certain to be deluged by trash from the Swiss of the press, so long as books were written merely for the produce of their dedications.

Apropos of this subject, added the Demon, I will relate to you a curious anecdote. It is not long since an illustrious lady accepted the honour of a dedication from a celebrated novelist, who, by the bye, writes so much in praise of other women, that he thinks himself at liberty to abuse the one peculiarly his own. The lady in question was anxious to see the address before it was printed; and not finding herself described to her taste, she wisely undertook the task, and gave herself all those inconvenient virtues, which the world so much admires. She then sent it to the author, who of course had weighty reasons for adopting it.

Hollo! cried Leandro, surely those are robbers who are entering that house by the balcony. Precisely so, said Asmodeus; they are brigands, and the house is a banker's. Watch them! you will be amused. See! they have opened the safe, and are ferreting every where; but the banker has been before them. He set out yesterday for Holland, and has taken with him the contents of his coffers for fear of accidents. They may make a merit of their visit, by informing his unfortunate depositors of their loss.

There is another thief, said Zambullo, mounting by a silken ladder into a neighbouring dwelling. You are mistaken there, replied the Devil; at all events it is not gold he seeks. He is a marquis, who would rob a young maiden of the name, of which however she is not unwilling to part. Never was "stand and deliver" more graciously received: he of course has sworn he will marry her, and she of course believes him; for a marquis's "promises" have unlimited credit upon Love's Exchange.

I am curious to learn, interrupted the Student, what that man in a night-cap and dressing-gown is about. He is writing very studiously, and near him is a little black figure, who occasionally guides his hand. He is a registrar of the civil courts, replied the Demon; and to oblige a guardian, is, for a consideration, altering a decree made in favour of the ward: the gentleman in black, who seems enjoying the sport, is Griffael the registrars' devil. Griffael, then, said Don Cleophas, is a sort of deputy to Flagel; for, as he is the spirit of the bar, the registrars are doubtless included in his department. Not so, replied Asmodeus; the registrars have been thought deserving of their peculiar demon, and I assure you they find him quite enough to do.

Near the registrar's house, you will perceive a young lady on the first floor. She is a widow; and the man, whom you see in the same room, is her uncle, who lodges in an apartment over hers. Admire the bashfulness of the dame! She is ashamed to put on her chemise before her aged relative; so modestly seeks the assistance of her lover, who is hidden in her dressing-room.

In the same house with the registrar lives a stout graduate, who has been lame from his birth, but who has not his equal in the world for pleasantry. Volumnius, so highly spoken of by Cicero for his delicate yet pungent wit, was a fool to him. He is known throughout Madrid as "the bachelor Donoso," or "the facetious graduate;" and his company is sought by old and young, at the court and in the town: in short, wherever there is, or should be, conviviality, he is so much the rage, that he has discharged his cook, as he never dines at home; to which he seldom returns until long after midnight. He is at present with the marquis of Alcazinas, who is indebted for this visit to chance only. How, to chance? interrupted Leandro. Why, replied the Demon, this morning, about noon, the graduate's door was besieged by at least half-a-dozen carriages, each sent for the especial honour of securing his society. The bachelor received the assembled pages in his apartment, and, displaying a pack of cards, thus addressed them:—My friends, as it is impossible for me to dine in six places at one time, and as it would not appear polite to show an undue preference, these cards shall decide the matter. Draw! I will dine with the king of clubs.

What object, said Don Cleophas, has yonder cavalier, who is sitting at a door on the other side of the street? Is he waiting for some pretty waiting-woman to usher him to his lady's chamber? No, no, answered Asmodeus; he is a young Castilian, whose modesty exceeds his love; so, after the fashion of the gallants of antiquity, he has come to pass the night at his mistress's portal. Listen to the twang of that wretched guitar, with which he accompanies his tender strains! On the second floor you may behold his inamorata: she is weeping as she hears him;—but it is for the absence of his rival.

You observe that new building, which is divided into two wings. One is occupied by the proprietor, the old gentleman whom you see, now pacing the apartment, now throwing himself into an easy chair. He is evidently immersed in some grand project, said Zambullo: who is he? If one may judge by the splendour which is displayed in his mansion, he is a grandee of the first order. Nevertheless, said Asmodeus, he is but an ancient clerk of the treasury, who has grown old in such lucrative employment as to enable him to amass four millions of reals. As he has some compunctions of conscience for the means by which all this wealth has been acquired, and as he expects shortly to be called upon to render his account in another world, where bribery is impracticable, he is about to compound for his sins in this, by building a monastery; which done, he flatters himself that peace will revisit his heart. He has already obtained the necessary permission; but, as he has resolved that the establishment shall consist of monks who are extremely chaste, sober, and of the most christian humility, he is much embarrassed in the selection. He need not build a very extensive convent.

The other wing is inhabited by a fair lady, who has just retired to rest after the luxury of a milk bath. This voluptuary is widow of a knight of the order of Saint James, who left her at his death her title only; but fortunately her charms have secured for her valuable friends in the persons of two members of the council of Castile, who generously divide her favours and the expenses of her household.

Hark! cried the Student; surely I hear the cries of distress. What dreadful misfortune has occurred? A very common one, said the Demon: two young cavaliers have been gambling in a hell (the name is a scandal on the infernal regions), which you perceive so brilliantly illuminated. They quarrelled upon an interesting point of the game, and naturally drew their swords to settle it: unluckily they were equally skilful with their weapons, and are both mortally wounded. The elder is married, which is unfortunate; and the younger an only son. The wife and father have just come in time to receive their last sighs; and it is their lamentations that you hear. Unhappy boy, cries the fond parent over the still breathing body of his son, how often have I conjured thee to renounce this dreadful vice!—how often have I warned thee it would one day cost thee thy life. Heaven is my witness, that the fault is none of mine! Men, added the Demon, are always selfish, even in their griefs. Meanwhile the wife is in despair. Although her husband has dissipated the fortune she brought him on their marriage; although he has sold, to maintain his shameful excesses, her jewels, and even her clothes, not a word of reproach escapes her lips. She is inconsolable for her loss. Her grief is vented in frantic exclamations, mixed with curses on the cards, and the devil who invented them; on the place in which her husband fell, and on the people who surround her, and to whom she fondly attributes his ruin.

How much to be lamented, interrupted the Student, is the love of gaming which possesses so large a portion of mankind; in what an awful state of excitement does it plunge its victims. Heaven be praised! I am not included in their legion. You are in high feather, replied the Demon, in another, whose exploits are not much more ennobling, and scarcely less dangerous. Is the conquest of a courtezan a glory worth achievement? Is the possession of charms common to a whole city worth the peril of a life? Man is an amusing animal! The vision of a mole would enable him to discover the vices of his fellows, while that of the vulture could scarce detect a folly of his own. But let us turn to another affecting spectacle. You can discern, in the house just beyond the one we have been contemplating, a fat old man extended on a bed: he is a canon, who is now in a fit of apoplexy. The two persons, whom you see in his room, are said to be his nephew and niece: they are too much affected by his situation to be able to assist him; so, are securing his valuable effects. By the time this is accomplished, he will be dead; and they will be sufficiently recovered, and at leisure, to weep over his remains.

Close by, you may perceive the funeral of two brothers; who, seized with the same disorder, took equally successful but different means of ensuring its fatality. One of them had the most utter confidence in his apothecary; the other eschewed the aid of medicine: the first died because he took all the trash his doctor sent him; the last because he would take nothing. Well! that is very perplexing, said Leandro; what is a poor sick devil to do? Why, replied Asmodeus, that is more than the one who has the honour of addressing you can determine. I know, for certain, that there are remedies for most ills; but I am not so sure that there are good physicians to administer them when necessary.

And now I have something more amusing to unriddle. Do you not hear a frightful din in the next street? A widow of sixty was married this morning to an Adonis of seventeen; and all the merry fellows of that part of the town have assembled to celebrate the wedding by a concert of pots and pans, marrowbones and cleavers. You told me, said the Student, that these matches were under your control: at all events you had no hand in this. No, truly, answered the Demon, not I. Had I been free, I should not have meddled with them. The widow had her scruples; and has married for no better reason than that she may enjoy, without remorse, the pleasures she so dearly loves. These are not the unions I care to form; I prefer troubling people's consciences to setting them at rest.

Notwithstanding this charming serenade, said Zambullo, it seems to me that it is not the only concert performing in the neighbourhood. No, said the cripple; in a tavern in the same street, a lusty Flemish captain, a chorister of the French opera, and an officer of the German guard are singing a trio. They have been drinking since eight in the morning; and each deems it a duty to his country, to see the others under the table.

Look for a moment on the house which stands by itself, nearly opposite to that of the apoplectic canon: you will see three very pretty but very notorious courtezans enjoying themselves with as many young courtiers. They are, indeed, lovely! exclaimed Don Cleophas. I am not surprised that they should be notorious: happy are the lovers who possess them! They seem however very partial to their present companions: I envy them their good fortune. Why, you are very green! replied the Demon: their faces are not disguised with greater skill than are their hearts. However prodigal of their caresses, they have not the slightest tenderness for their foolish swains; their affection is bounded to the purses of their lovers. One of them has just secured the promise of a liberal establishment; and the others are prepared with settlements which they are in expectation of securing ere they part. It is the same with them all. Men vainly ruin themselves for the sex: gold buys not love. The well-paid mistress soon treats her lover as a husband: that is a rule which I found necessary to establish in my code of intrigue. But we will leave these fools to taste the pleasures they so dearly purchase; while their valets, who are waiting in the street, console themselves with the pleasing anticipation of enjoying them gratis.

Tell me, interrupted Leandro Perez, what is passing in that splendid mansion on the left. The house is filled with well-dressed cavaliers and ladies; and all seems dancing and conviviality. It is indeed a joyous festival. It is another wedding, said Asmodeus; and happy as they now are, it is not three days since that house witnessed the deepest affliction. It is a story worth hearing: it is rather long, certainly, but it will repay your patience. The Devil then began as follows.


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