From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 283-292.283
IN one of the districts of Montferrat dwelt a poor laborer, whose name was Gilbert. For the support of himself and family he cultivated a small enclosure, and whatever time he could snatch from the labors of his little farm he employed in gathering fagots from a wood which was at no great distance. These he brought home on the back of an ass, of which he was become the master, and afterwards, as opportunity served, conveyed them to the market of the next town, where, with the money they produced, he purchased such articles as were most wanted by his family.
Gilbert was a simple fellow, and so credulous that you might have made him believe almost any absurdity. It happened one day that, wishing to penetrate into the interior of the wood, he left his ass tied to a tree at the outskirts. Soon afterwards there passed that way two minor brethren of Saint Francis: Father Antony of Como, and Father Timothy of Casal Maggiore. Of missal or of breviary Father Timothy took little heed; he was one of those who, not yet on familiar terms with his alphabet, had attached himself to that holy order with no other aim that that of being useful in its most ordinary concerns. In company with Father Antony he rambled over the circumjacent districts, begging, for Christian charity’s sake, contributions of bread, wine, fruit, and whatever else could be obtained for the maintenance and solace of the poor brotherhood. Yet was there not one among them of quicker and acuter invention than he; a brain more fantastical it is impossible to imagine; and his most whimsical tricks were accomplished with such pleasantry and good humor, that he was the admiration of his associates.284
Now these two friars having had a tedious tramp through roads somewhat muddy, and bending their course homewards with their bags well filled, were so fatigued that it was with great difficulty they could set one foot before the other; yet had they a good distance to travel ere they could reach their monastery. Accordingly, Father Timothy, observing that the ass was there unguarded, and considering it to be unreasonable that an animal made to carry burthens should stand there fresh and idle, while they, tired and breathless, bore on their shoulders no trifling weight, made up his mind without hesitation. Turning round to his companion, he asked with a smile:
“Brother Antony, what would you give if you could have this ass to carry our bags?”
“Verily,” answered the other, “so nearly am I exhausted, that just now it would suite me well.”
“And do not you see,” rejoined Timothy, “that it is Providence that has guided us to this beast? Let us not reject the boon that is thus opportunely thrown in our way.”
With these words, approaching the animal, he threw his wallet on its back, and invited his companion to do the same; then loosing the halter from the ass’s head, he fitted it upon his own, and proceeded to fasten himself to the tree, exactly in the position in which they had found the animal. Next turning to Father Antony:
“Go,” said he, “my good brother; lead this beast back with thee to the convent, and there tell our brethren that I, suddenly attacked by fever, have found refuge in the house of a benevolent peasant, who, for the more expeditious conveyance of our collection of bread to the convent, has charitably lent thee this ass, which we may return to him next week, when, in quest of provisions, or for any other purpose, we may be coming this way. As for me, say that please God, I hope to be with them in the course of tomorrow.”
Hearing a proposal so extraordinary, Antony doubted if he were awake, and, used as he was to the whimsicalities of Timothy, yet this freak appeared to him so extravagant 285 that he began to suspect his poor brother was really crazed, and fixing his eyes upon him with a stupid stare, stood motionless and mute.
“Away!” cried Timothy, half angry; “lose no time; a moment’s delay may defeat our purpose; leave me to take care of myself, and this halter may chance not to gall my neck so grievously as you perhaps suspect. Have I not, Antony, shown you more than one sample of what I can accomplish? Confide implicitly in me; do what I desire, or you will repent it; begone!”
This he spoke in a tone so decisive and imperative, that Antony submitted, and replied, “Since so you command, so I will do; look you to the consequences”; and forthwith driving the loaded beast before him, he punctually obeyed the directions his comrade had given.
The holy brotherhood, when they heard of the accident which had befallen Father Timothy, concluded that, since Providence orders all for the best, they must seek consolation for their brother’s mischance in a pious reliance upon the Divine mercy, and in the meantime be thankful that Timothy’s good host should have been disposed to despatch to them with so much provident expedition their supply of bread.
Gilbert, having at length gathered and bundled together his fagots, hastened from the wood to place them on the back of his ass; and seeing who it was that stood in the animal’s place, exclaimed, “Lord have mercy on us!” then crossed himself with trembling astonishment, and fearing that this was nothing less than a malicious trick played him by the devil, was about to run away. Recollecting, however, that the Evil One would be little inclined to assume the figure of a holy Franciscan, he somewhat checked his terror, but without any diminution of his stupor and amazement.
When Timothy observed his surprise and confusion, he could with difficulty refrain from laughing; but recollecting himself and composing his countenance, he thus addressed him:286
“Thou art amazed, my friend, and truly not without reason, at that which thou beholdest; but what then will be thy astonishment when thou shalt learn the remainder of my story? Approach without dread; for thyself have no apprehension; but admire, in my case, the powerful hand and mysterious judgments of Heaven! It was thy belief that thou hadst an ass in thy stable, whilst, under the figure of that animal, thou were harboring there an unfortunate Franciscan, no other than myself!”
“Can you be serious, good father?” said Gilbert, interrupting him.
“Did I not tell thee,” quickly rejoined the friar, “that this thy astonishment would be redoubled by my narration? Free me, I pray thee, from this disgraceful halter, the only vestige now left of my ignominy. Think not, oh, my son!” (continued Timothy when the rope was removed from his neck), “think not that, however sanctified be the life which a mortal leads here below, he therefore becomes sinless! So frail is humanity, so many the occasions of offense, and so strong and frequent the temptations that assail us, that it is a hard thing for a man to escape; he may resolve to fly from the world and to hide himself from its allurements, yet he carries still about him his carnal appetites, those treacherous enemies of his peace. What wonder, then, if occasionally he should yield to seduction, although dwelling in the sacred asylum of piety? Even I, I myself, had the ill-fortune to fall, and my sins were of that nature and degree that it pleased the Divine justice, by way of punishment, to transform me into a vile beast of burden, in order that in its shape I might undergo the penance I too well had merited. In this most wretched condition, so severe, as well thou knowest, have been the sufferings I have endured, that it has pleased God at length, in His compassion, to raise me from my degradation, and to restore me to the dignity of the human form.”
Gilbert, who gave entire faith to the friar’s story, recollecting all that he had made the poor ass endure, was filled 287 with sorrowful contrition, and throwing himself upon his knees before the friar, cried in a supplicating tone:
“And can you, my good father, ever forgive me the blows, innumerable as they have been, which you have had from my hands, and the curses, moreover, which you have so often heard from my lips? Atrocious indeed do they now appear to me, since great is my veneration for your holy order, and for your pious founder, St. Francis!”
“Let not these recollections afflict thee,” said Timothy, affectionately raising him from the ground; “for heaping as thou didst thy blows upon my back and sides, thou gavest to my flesh that salutary castigation which it was Heaven’s will it should sustain; rebellious as it had too often proved, it was but right that it should suffer the punishment needful to bring it back into the path of duty. Nay, I will tell thee, that in this instance thou hast rendered me no inconsiderable service; for the more frequent and heavy were the blows of thy cudgel, the more speedily was by that means my sum of penance accomplished and the period of my deliverance accelerated.
“Far, therefore, from owing thee any grudge on that score, I ought to thank thee for it; and I give thee my word that when once reseated in my cell, as I propose shortly to be, I will be mindful of thee, and put up for thy benefit prayers so fervent that although just now thou appearest to suffer by the loss of thine ass, thou shalt, in ample recompense, receive manifold blessings poured down upon thy family, and upon the joyful harvest of thy fields. Take, then, my worthy friend, with a grateful heart, thy wood upon thy shoulder; go, and may peace attend thee!”
“But will not you, my good gather,” replied Gilbert, “abide with us this night? You shall want no accommodation which our cottage can afford; the hour, you see, is waxing late, and should rather suggest to you the thought of seeking for yourself a lodging than of adventuring on the highroad.”
“Son, thou hast said well,” answered the friar; “but what must be my confusion on revisiting the spot where I 288 have dwelt in such disgrace! However, since to endure the survey of the scene of my humiliation may count for a becoming act of resignation, I submit, and with God’s permission will follow wherever thou shalt direct.”
So saying, they proceeded to the house, and when arrived there, Father Timothy pretended to be on terms of intimacy with all the family. He began to talk with great familiarity, first with one, then with another, as if they had been old acquaintances; and when at this they one and all began to express surprise, he, in a joking way, said he wondered at their estrangement towards one who had for a long period of time been their guest. Gilbert, too, assured them that such was literally the fact; and after keeping them awhile in suspense, informed them who this fellow of a friar was, and under what shape he had lived with them for so long.
An aged man, Gilbert’s father, a young woman, his wife, and two lads, his sons, whose ages did not exceed twelve or fourteen, composed this simple group. Open-mouthed, half breathless, and with eyes fixed in motionless attention, each of them listened to Gilbert’s story; in their countenances you might have read a mixture of surprise, devotion, and gladness, not without marks of regret and compassion caused by a recollection of the long labors that the poor ass had sustained, the scanty nourishment of bad straw, worse hay, or vile garden weeds which at any time had reached his manger, and the many bastinadoes or goads with which every one of them had often galled or bruised him.
In pity for his sufferings past, they strove with each other who should now caress him most and show him the fondest regards. Two pullets, all that remained in the coop, were forthwith put to death, and by their help, together with whatever else the cottage could muster or the neighborhood contribute, a repast was prepared; to which a bottle of excellent wine, being hoarded by Gilbert, but which this evening it was his pleasure to uncork in honor of his guest, gave a relish.289
Now, while the dishes and the cups went round, Father Timothy, naturally sociable and gay, indulged his mirthful vein to a degree that delighted them all, displaying from time to time some of his most original drolleries; not forgetting, however, occasionally to recall his laughing circle to a more serious mood by introducing, in the midst of his facetious stories, some moral or religious precept, that he might appear to them as devout as they found him jovial and entertaining. Yet he could not so far command himself as not to awaken in the mind of Gilbert some little suspicion; and this was principally occasioned by the notice which the friar took of Gilbert’s wife, Dame Cicely, who was comely and well-favored for her station, and whom he eyed with glances that seemed to betoken how gladly he would, if he could, be on terms of greater intimacy with her. She, on her part, with that veneration for the good brethren of the church which belongs to her sex, and attracted, moreover, by his pleasant manners and conversation, could hardly look upon him with indifference. Of this the watchful husband was more than once aware; and when at last he could no longer contain himself, thus addressed the friar
“My good father, one may easily see how necessary to you is the mortification of the flesh; even after the little indulgence that you have given to it this evening, it displays symptoms of rebellion and threatens you with a relapse into sin. If so recent an escape from your past sufferings prove thus unavailing to defend you from assaults of this nature, grieved am I to tell you that great is your danger of again assuming (aye, and very shortly too) an asinine form; let me therefore advise you to return betimes tomorrow morning to your convent; there stay, and bastinado your carcass without ceasing, unless you prefer that a service so necessary should be performed for you by others.”
It is wonderful to observe how, at times, a man’s passions have the power of quickening his understanding. Gilbert, who, in all his life before had never uttered a 290 sentence which was above the common style of a laboring peasant, now that his slumberous intelligence was roused by the stimulating impulse of anxious jealousy, became all at once a fluent and able speaker. In consequence of an address so cogent and unexpected, the friar was aware that it became him to be upon his guard, and, by words and actions well considered and adapted, to steer clear of a flagellation of the flesh, which during the remainder of the evening he was careful to do.
Next morning, after a hearty breakfast, Timothy returned to his convent, and told the father guardian that it was for the benefit of the monastery that it had pleased Heaven to visit him with fever; for that the good peasant, prompted by devotion towards the venerable St. Francis, had presented to the convent that useful animal which he had lent the preceding day to Friar Antony, intelligence which at first greatly rejoiced the worthy guardian; but he subsequently reflecting that it might appear to the world inconsistent with the mendicant life of the brotherhood and with the strictness of their rules to maintain an ass, as if it were from indolence or self-indulgence; that hence might ensue some diminution in the charity of the faithful, and some abatement of fervent and zealous regard towards his order, prudently determined that it would be best to sell the ass, without the aid of which the brethren had hitherto gone on very well, and he therefore sent it forthwith, by a trusty person, to a neighboring fair. There, as chance would have it, that very day was Gilbert, who, as soon as he descried the ass, knew him from the circumstance of his having one of his ears cropped; and going up to him, he placed his mouth close to the animal’s ear in the action of talking to him, and whispered, very softly:
“Lack-a-day, my good father! the rebellious flesh, then, has played thee another trick! Did I not forewarn thee that this would happen?”
The ass, feeling a breathing and tickling in his ear, shook his head, as if not assenting.291
“Deny it not,” resumed Gilbert; “I know thee well; thou art the self-same.”
Again the ass shook his head.
“Nay, deny it not; lie not!” rejoined the worthy Gilbert, somewhat raising his voice; “Lie not, for that is a great sin; thee it is: yes, in spite of thyself, it is thee!”
The bystanders seeing a man thus holding a conversation with an ass, believed him crazy, and gathering round him, began to put questions, some about one thing, some about another, and Gilbert advanced the strangest and most unaccountable facts, always maintaining that this was not an ass, however it might bear that resemblance, but in truth a poor miserable Franciscan, who for his carnal frailties was now unfortunately a second time transmuted into this form; and he then told from the beginning all the story of the incontinent friar metamorphosed into a beast of burthen.
The bursts of laughter which attended this narrative it is needless to describe. Poor Gilbert was all that day the butt of the fair; and as the owl draws after her a flight of birds, which flutter around her with various screams and chatterings, so was Gilbert, whichever way he turned, pressed upon by the surrounding crowd, who, with loud jeers and scoffs, made him their laughing-stock. At last some one among them recommended to him again to buy this unlucky animal, to feed him with the best hay he could procure, and by all kinds of good treatment to make him amends for what he had in times past caused him to suffer. This advice pleased Gilbert, who purchased the ass, and led him home. How was Dame Cicely astonished, how also the old father and the two youngsters, to see their well-known ass again!
Such was the welcome they gave him, such the attentions they paid him, that never was ass in the world so fed or so caressed. Plump beyond the costume of asses became his flesh; smooth and shining like velvet his skin; but the perverse animal soon grew vicious and prone to bad habits; already he began to give no little trouble, not to 292 the old man, the wife and the boys only, but even to Gilbert himself. With savage bites and rude kicks he assailed his generous benefactors, and brayed so loudly and so continually, night and day, that he became a very serious nuisance to the neighborhood. He more than once broke the halter by which he was tied to the manger in order to satisfy his unruly appetite.
How sadly scandalized all the family were at these brutal practices of Friar Timothy it is easy to imagine. Blamable as might seem to them all his former pranks, and unbecoming, as they doubtless were, in that probationary state to which he was condemned, they were peccadilloes compared with his last offense. Gilbert, finding that day by day he became more intractable, concluded that, persevering as he did in a life thus vicious and depraved, he was condemned never more to fraternize with his Franciscan brethren. He began to suspect, too, that he himself might be in some measure to blame for what had happened.
“Asinine flesh and monkish flesh,” said he to himself, “must not be too indulgently treated.”
Gilbert saw the necessity there was for returning in good earnest to that system of flagellation which had on a former occasion produced so beneficial an effect. With this view he again had recourse to the cudgel and to hard labor; but whether it was that the unlucky ass had by a course of gentle treatment, become of a constitution too delicate, or whether Gilbert, with an over-ardent zeal, carried his regimen of severity beyond the due limits, certain it is that the afflicted beast, unable to endure a discipline so rigid, soon died, and these good people had to deplore the eternal loss of the soul of Father Timothy, who, in spite of his having undergone two purgatories in an ass‘s shape, still died impenitent through the execrable vice of gluttony, from which may the Divine grace preserve all good Christians, not excepting the poor brethren of St. Francis!
* 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].