From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 66-77.66
IN the time of St. Jerome, one of the most learned doctors of the Holy Church, there dwelt in Maronia, a village not far from the city of Antioch, a poor man who supported himself upon the produce of a little farm which he cultivated with his own hands. He had an only son, of the name of Malco, whom he supported, as well as his wife, in pretty easy circumstances; this child being the sole pledge of their affection, and from his pleasing and excellent disposition the delight of both his parents. Having attained to years of maturity, their favorite object was now to behold him married; and with this view his father one day thus affectionately addressed him:
“As you know, my dear son, that you have neither brother nor sister, and are now arrived at manhood, while your parents are fast verging to old age, it would much gratify us both could we see you united according to your wishes in wedlock. As the consolation of our declining years, we shall thus be delighted to witness your happiness, bringing up your children, the sweetest solace of this our mortal state, in the fear of the Lord; whereas, should you defer such an engagement to a later period, you will encounter infinitely more risks and trouble, as may be learned from numerous examples which it were needless to specify.”
After listening attentively to the kind advice offered by his father, Malco, with the greatest respect and reverence, begged to decline his proposal, alleging as a reason that he wished to devote himself wholly to a religious life — a resolution which gave equal surprise and concern to both his parents. They therefore gently reproached him for indulging wishes that involved the failure of their name, dying without any legitimate successors, of whom all men 67 are more or less desirous; and urged besides a variety of other reasons, which were applied with as little success. All they could gather from him was, that upon mature deliberation he had resolved to provide only for the good of his soul, to the exclusion of all earthly considerations. In spite of all their tears and entreaties, they could obtain only the same answer, and their threats proved as unavailing as their prayers.
Both parties persisting in their respective resolutions, to their mutual annoyance, Malco, in order to avoid its perpetual recurrence, as well as to execute the object he had in view, resolved to abandon his native place, which he took an early opportunity of doing. But not venturing to depart into the East from a dread of encountering the contending armies of the Romans and Persians, then engaged in cruel and sanguinary warfare, he took a secret route towards the desert of Calcis, and, after a few days of patient toil, he found himself amidst its vast solitude, relieved only by a solitary monastery which he discovered in the distance, where, the holy brotherhood receiving him on his arrival, he resolved to submit himself to their most rigid rules and discipline. Joyfully assuming the monk’s habit, he soon began to set an example to the whole fraternity, by the severity of his mortifications, his continual fasts and watches, which had shortly the effect of consuming all the vigor and freshness of his youth, along with his natural appetites, which he completely subdued by confining himself to the very scanty fare earned by his own hands.
Having continued this mode of life for some years, he accidentally heard of his father’s decease, and feeling for the situation of his widowed mother, as well as being desirous of securing his little heritage, which he wished to convert into money as alms for the poorer brethren and other charitable purposes, he shortly came to the resolution of returning home. Going accordingly to the abbot, he entreated his permission to depart, at the same time bidding him a holy farewell. The good father, grown gray in experience and wisdom, was sore displeased to hear of 68 his poor monk’s intention, and pronounced it to be nothing better than a temptation of the devil, presented in this specious shape of charity the more surely to beguile his soul; affirming that his only chance was to resist the ancient adversary at the outset, in default of which so many wise and holy men, even the fathers themselves, had oftentimes been deceived; and that the more pious and excellent the object he had in view appeared to be, the more wily and diabolical was the plan laid for his spiritual destruction.
This the holy father labored to make manifest by many notable instances and examples; but all in vain to deter the good monk, who was obstinately bent upon returning home. For, though the eloquence of his superior appeared like the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it had not the effect of shaking his resolution a jot, not even when his kind benefactor had recourse to prayers and entreaties, and charged him with the greatest ingratitude in thus turning his back upon the monastery and the poor brethren, who had so hospitably received and sheltered him. He would, moreover, bring into peril both soul and body, and provoke his eternal perdition, by wilfully traversing a country lying between Baria and Edessa, beset with heathen robbers and spoilers, who delighted to shed the blood of the innocent worshipers of the true faith.
“Besides,” added the good father, appealing to the highest authority, “no man putting his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of heaven; and if he persist in this line of conduct, like the dog returning to his vomit, he will soon become the lost sheep of the fold, exposed to all the fury of ravenous wolves.
Malco, nevertheless, being by no means of a soft and yielding disposition, was neither to be persuaded nor terrified out of his purpose; and embracing the worthy abbot, who consigned him over to speedy destruction, he boldly set forth upon his route, heedless of the entreaties of the whole brotherhood. As a precaution against the Moors, he united himself to a body of travelers about to proceed 69 in the same direction, who agreed to support and defend one another. The caravan consisted of about sixty souls, men and women, of various ranks, and their courage was speedily put to the test; for they had hardly proceeded a day’s journey when they were suddenly assailed by a band of infidels, who sprung upon them in vast numbers from an ambush, crying, “Death, death to the unbelieving dogs!” at the same moment seizing their knives, and rapidly executing their threats. Great indeed was the outcry, the consternation, and confusion; some flying, some perishing, and some glad to be made prisoners.
Upon a division of booty after the tragedy, it happened that our friend Malco, along with a young woman, fell to the lot of one master, who, mounting his prisoners upon the same camel, took his way over a long and barren waste, beyond a vast river, during which they encountered infinite toil and trouble. And when they at length attained their destination, amidst some fertile solitudes in the heart of the desert, the poor monk was set to guard his heathen master’s flocks, transformed into a shepherd boy; but possessing uninterrupted time and solitude, he soon became reconciled to his situation and quite contented, believing himself now better entitled to the character of a monk than he had ever before been; a monk, in the Greek tongue, signifying nothing more nor less than a recluse. It thus became delightful to him to dwell upon the lives of the holy patriarchs, as described in the Old Testament, which it was his great ambition to emulate as nearly as possible, having merely dreamed or read of them in his convent, but never flattering himself that he should have the happiness so nearly to resemble them. Adding to this consideration the dangers through which he had passed, he had good reason to feel satisfied with his condition, and offer up thanks to Heaven for his preservation in hymns and psalms, which he could repeat extempore in great number.
Too happy had he been could he have continued in this tranquil state, had Fortune been so inclined; but she was busily preparing new trials for him, while he imagined himself 70 beyond the reach of her malice in the deep, sequestered solitudes he so much enjoyed, For his master, becoming sensible of his faithful and assiduous services in the care and increase of his flocks, felt more kindly disposed towards him and desirous of rewarding his poor slave in a manner which he thought at once agreeable and profitable. With this view, summoning his female slave into his presence, he addressed the pious Malco as follows:
“I am so well satisfied, Malco, with your conduct, that I am resolved to give you some signal proof of my favor, insomuch that if you had before a motive for promoting my interests, it will render you in future doubly assiduous. Behold, I am willing to give you this fair Christian here for your wedded wife; you are fellow prisoners, and I cannot do better than unite your fortunes in one, so that you may henceforward, though condemned to servitude, pass your days in peace and comfort in the joys of domestic live.”
The poor monk was sadly grieved and disconcerted at this proposal, the worst in his opinion that he had to dread. He instantaneously declared his dislike to it, adding that he was prohibited by the rules of his order even from indulging such a wish; and, besides, the lady in question had a husband most likely living, taken prisoner at the same time with themselves, though disposed of to a different master. Incensed at receiving the least opposition on the part of his slave, his master, giving way to an impulse of passion, suddenly drew his knife for the purpose of despatching Malco on the spot. And this he would infallibly have done, had not his pious herdsman sought refuge behind the slighted lady, whom he was glad enough in this exigence to embrace; and his dread was such that he became unable to utter a word, which his savage master luckily took for an acknowledgment of his error and an inclination to submit.
Concluding such to be the case, he ordered both parties to be conducted home to Malco’s hut, where they were safely secured for the night. In this great extremity the 71 unfortunate monk stationed himself as far as possible from the hated object of his fears, considering her in the light of his spiritual adversary, whom he was to resist by every means in his power. He appeared to regard her with mingled scorn and detestation, which the fair Christian on her part returned; and, buried in their own thoughts, they sorrowfully contrasted their late freedom and happiness with their present miserable lot. Such, indeed, was its impression upon the spirits of the pious Malco, that added to his dread of being compelled sooner or later to violate his vows, he resolved to make an end of all his troubles at a single blow. With more of the hero than the Christian, he was already seen brandishing the fatal steel, and after muttering a few hasty prayers, he turned to his companion.
“Fear me not,” he said, “unhappy woman; but fare you well. I am going to rid myself of this world, preferring to lose my life rather than to preserve it by entering into the marriage state.”
Hearing his desperate intentions, and observing the deadly weapon glaring through the darkness that surrounded them, the kind lady seized the despairing man in her arms, and holding him as straitly as she could, she at the same time conjured him to have mercy on his own soul, and then falling at his feet, she thus continued:
“Nay, slay not thyself, my good Malco; but take heed, lest, in attempting to save thy soul alive, thou dost not by those very means contrive to lose it. If it be only a wish to preserve thy long-treasured virtue that tempts thee to such despair, pray let thy mind be easy on that score; for, believe me, I will sooner consent to be cut into pieces than sin against that commandment of God which thou well wottest of, being determined to preserve my conjugal faith at all hazards. So listen to me, and be at peace; for I will teach thee how to arrange thy affairs as well as my own in such sort as to leave us both at liberty to pursue our respective inclinations without incurring the tremendous vengeance of our lord and master. Let us affect submission to his wished, while we continue to live with the affection 72 only of brother and sister for each other, and in this way our misfortunes ought to render us dear to one another.”
Such a proposal Malco received with gratitude, and they contrived to deport themselves so tenderly and affectionately one towards the other as completely to impose upon their master, who, pleased with this proof of their submission, every day granted more and more liberty to their actions. Some years elapsed in this manner without either of them having occasion to accuse the other of a wish to infringe upon the original conditions, their master indulging only a little surprise at not being sooner presented with a young progeny of slaves.
But the pious brother, as well as his sister in captivity, becoming weary of the privations they endured, one day as our hero was standing in a desponding attitude alone in the desert, leaning upon his crook and gazing wistfully upon the sky (and little else, indeed, there was to be seen), he began to ponder seriously upon his past life. Surrounded by his flock, he dwelt upon his present lot as contrasted with the pleasant life he had before led with those holy monks by whom he had been so kindly educated and cherished. The figure of his venerable abbot appeared in all the odor of sanctity before him, and there were moments when his charitable acts and converse came fresh over his memory, seeming to say that he had wilfully forfeited the salvation which he would have secured to him, besides plunging his saintly director in holy grief for his premature departure.
While revolving these bitter thoughts, he chanced to cast his eyes on an ant-hill, where he observed thousands of little busy citizens, laboring up and down the hill with all their might. Sometimes they marched in rank and file, as if conducting some important operations; some were pioneers, while others were employed in bearing provisions needful to the pigmy citadel. Another party was seen erecting earthen batteries against the wintry winds and floods; a second was busily biting off the heads of grains 73 and seeds in order to prevent vegetation; and a third was seen, like pallbearers, with the dead bodies of their brethren upon their shoulders, without in the least incommoding the proceedings of the others. More extraordinary still, such as were observed to be overburthened received immediate succor from a company in reserve, who speedily gave their shoulders to the task. And as the whole process appeared to be conducted according to certain rules and method, those that entered were seen as if inquiring the business of such as were going out, for the purpose of ascertaining their respective duties.
Poor Malco’s thoughts began to dwell upon the delights of freedom and industry, as he contemplated the sight before him; slavery appeared to him in all its naked deformity, and he sighed once more for the arduous duties of a monastic life, of which he fancied he beheld so laudable an example in the busy scene before him. Upon returning to his rustic abode, he proceeded to address his female companion as follows, who expressed no little surprise at the sudden change which had taken place in his sentiments:
“I will tell you of what I have been thinking, and I hope it will meet with your approbation: I have an earnest desire to obtain my freedom.”
“So have I,” returned his companion; “I am heartily weary of the severe and solitary life we lead here, and I am very much concerned to see your affliction. For this reason I would prevail upon you to seize the first occasion that offers of attempting our escape, as I will gladly run all risks in accompanying you.”
This was mutually agreed upon by both parties, who had now only to study the best means of achieving so desirable an object. And it was not long before Malco, turning to the lady, said:
“Are you still in the same way of thinking, and do you feel courage enough to avail yourself of such an opportunity as we were lately speaking of, should it speedily offer?”
“Yes, indeed I do,” was her reply.74
“That is quite essential,” continued Malco, “for if you indulge the least fear, it will necessarily involve us in greater troubles than ever. So listen while I explain all the particulars of the plan I have adopted”; and this he proceeded to do, after which he lost no time in making all the preparations he considered necessary.
In the first place, he slaughtered two of the largest goats he could find in his master’s flock, whose skins he converted into leather bottles, cooking the flesh so as best to preserve it for provisions upon their route. All being in readiness, they took a favorable opportunity towards nightfall of leaving their master, following the course of the adjacent river for about ten miles, over a toilsome and dangerous way. There Malco inflated his leather bottles, and boldly placing himself upon one of them, he let himself float in the direction of the current, inviting his companion to follow his example, which, with the utmost intrepidity, she did.
In this manner were they borne a long way down the river, until they found an opportunity of landing upon the opposite side, and flattered themselves that they should thus succeed in avoiding pursuit, as their master would be unable to track them beyond the banks of the river. Although they had the misfortune to lose the chief part of their stores during their passage, they pursued their way, allowing scarcely any time for refreshment or for rest, and dreading to look either behind or before them, lest they should behold the relentless features of their incensed master or of robbers still more ferocious. The next day the heat of the sun was so excessive as to compel them to proceed for the most part by night, when they were molested with a variety of noxious insects, birds, snakes, and animals.
On the third day of their weary pilgrimage, while journeying between hope and despair, and at times stealing anxious looks around them, they heard footsteps hastily approaching, which from their direction they judged to be in pursuit. The form of their master seeming to rise before them added wings to their flight; and such was the 75 terror he inspired that, losing all their presence of mind, they no longer knew the path they took, but eagerly looked out on all sides for some place of refuge. At the moment they found their pursuers fast gaining upon them, they perceived an immense cave not far from them, on the right hand, into which they rushed with the boldness of despair.
But before they had entered very far, a fresh cause of alarm arose, even greater than the former: they discovered it to be in possession of poisonous reptiles and savage beasts, whose growlings were heard resounding in the distance. For such wild and deeply concealed caverns are eagerly resorted to during the hot and fiery season by the most ferocious animals on account of their comparative coolness. Affrighted at the appalling noises around them, the fugitives venturing to advance no farther, hid themselves in a little recess on one side of the passage, and sunk almost lifeless upon the ground.
In the meanwhile, their master and his attendant, for indeed it was no other, had approached the entrance of the cave, tracking the footsteps of their victims through the sand. Dismounting from their camels, the master ordered his servant to enter with his drawn sword, while he stood with a large knife at the mouth of the cavern, prepared to give them no agreeable reception. Now it so happened that the attendant, advancing in the obscurity of the place, passed by the recess where Malco and his companion lay. Impelled forward by the threats of his master, he began in his turn to call out with a loud voice, in order to affright the fugitives from their hiding-place, and penetrated into the more remote parts of the cavern, exclaiming:
“Vile wretches and slaves as you are, do you hear your master’s voice? Come forth, I say, and receive the just chastisement of your crimes! come out, and see what sort of a reception he will give you.”
He had hardly pronounced these words, which made the vaults of the cave echo back the sound, when, approaching the lair of a fierce and terrific lioness, she suddenly sprang upon the wretched slave, and, fastening upon his throat, 76 bore him, howling, into the remotest recesses of that dismal place.
His master, after awaiting his return or the appearance of the fugitives during a long period in vain, began to fear that his faithful slave had been overpowered by the other two, and, without reflecting longer upon the matter, he rushed forward, brandishing his huge knife, and shouting out his name, into the cave. At the same time he used the most opprobrious epithets towards his fugitive slaves, who lay trembling with dread upon the ground; but he had not proceeded far beyond their hiding-place when the same ferocious lioness that had just despatched his servant stood before his path. Before he could move a single step, he felt her talons at his throat, and in the next instant lay a corpse at her feet. The furious animal, supposing her retreat had been discovered, then rushed out of the cavern, bearing her cubs in her teeth, and, without returning to feast upon the dead bodies of the master and his slave, sought out for herself another lair.
During the whole time that this fearful tragedy was transacting, Malco and his companion had remained still as death, witnessing, at the same time, every circumstance as it occurred, while their hearts beat fearfully at the tremendous threats of the master and his servant as they were seen brandishing their weapons, and at the sudden and dreadful appearance and the howlings of the lioness, which made their very hair to stand on end. Often was the wretched woman on the point of giving utterance to her fears, had not Malco restrained her; and when they believed the danger to be passed, they were scarcely less affected than before, and offered up thanks to Heaven for their deliverance, which they continued until the evening, not venturing sooner out of their hiding-place.
They then mounted the camels of the deceased, which they found supplied with provisions and wine, and recovering their spirits sufficiently to continue their journey, arrived amidst hymns of praise and gratitude about nightfall at the outposts of the Roman army. An account of 77 their long sufferings and adventures being conveyed to the tribune, he gave them a gracious hearing, and allowed them an escort as far as Mesopotamia, where they were recommended to the charge of the proconsul Labino. There, hearing of the decease of his worthy benefactor the abbot, Malco continued his journey into Maronia, along with the companion who had shared so many troubles with him, devoting himself wherever he came to the service of Heaven and the church, and preserving his virtue free from the contamination of worldly vanities.
* Elf.Ed. — Thomas Roscoe is not credited as the translator, but this story is included in his book, The Italian Novelists, also here on Elfinspell. In this series, the spelling is Americanized and there are minor changes in punctuation and format, mostly more paragraphs than in Roscoe’s translation. To see the original version go [here].