From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 60-65.60
DURING the lifetime of Luigi Gonzaga, lord of Castel Goffredo, of distinguished memory, there flourished two very notorious rogues, who were among the most remarkable in all his dominions for the number of their depredations, but whose ingenuity could not, at length, prevent their falling into the hands of justice. They were brothers, and natives of Cremona; and such was their sense of their own enormities, that on being taken they did not scruple to confess them without awaiting the tardier process of torture. They may be said, therefore, to have been sentenced at their own desire, having given very sufficient reasons why they should suffer. Luckily, however, there was a certain Messer Pietro, a rich uncle of theirs, well stricken in years and somewhat infirm, who still retained such a regard for the honor of his family that he did not altogether like the idea of seeing his nephews hanged.
Without staying, therefore, until he felt himself perfectly restored, for he still had a few twinges of the gout, he first lined his purse well with ducats, and then set out towards the seat of justice, determined to try whether they would have any efficacy in removing the stain which would otherwise infallibly attach to the family escutcheon. When he arrived at the place, he began by the usual methods of prayer and petition to beg the lives of his unlucky young relatives, a process which proved perfectly fruitless, inasmuch as the duke’s love of justice was in exact proportion to his dislike of villains and his encouragement of honest men. Besides, he had put his hand to their sentence, and seemed resolved for once, right or wrong, that they should be shorter by the heads which had devised so many ingenious plans of mischief. Tears, and moans, and groans 61 were all richly lavished by the old man to no sort of purpose, until he had very nearly reached the day of execution before he could prevail upon himself to change his measures and resort to the more solid arguments he had brought in his purse.
The duke had already been so much annoyed by him, that he always rode away on his approach; yet wherever he happened to stop or turn, the old man was sure to intercept, to meet, or to attack him in his rear. Wearied at length with his importunities, the duke summoned his train and rode away to hunt at Goito, not far from Mantua, where he understood that Duke Frederic II. was then engaged in the same sport. He was received by him very graciously, and proved a very agreeable addition to the party, who indulged themselves in every kind of pleasure they could imagine; until one day, as they were issuing forth, the countenance of the wearisome old man again presented itself, and he began exactly in the same tone with his petition where he had before left off. Yes, he stood there on his gouty feet, but how he got there nobody could tell, except the poor steed, which in his haste he had ridden to death by the way.
So his excellency was here compelled to hold a fresh colloquy, which was lengthened by some of the courtiers, with whose easy consciences the bribes of the cunning old Cremonese had already been busy. Such was the effect, indeed, that they now began to support the old gentleman in his pretensions, observing first that it was a sad pity, and then, as the duke took it easily, that it was a horrible piece of injustice that two such fine young fellows should be hanged. In proportion as the good uncle plied them with ducats, they became more and more clamorous for mercy, insisting, among other things, that the two rogues had served like valiant soldiers in the duke’s army and deserved a better fate. For they knew that this would be a powerful plea with him; and such were, in short, the lies and impostures of all kinds which they succeeded in palming upon their noble master, that he really began to think the prisoners 62 were about to be very ill-used, though they ought to have been executed long ago. They, moreover, lauded the duke for his great humanity, and, as such sycophants are apt to do, they so completely won his ear by their vile flatteries as to convince him that it would be one of the most pious acts in the world to revoke the sentence against two of the most accomplished villains in his dominions. Indeed, he was glad to be able on any terms to escape the sight of the old man and the worrying entreaties of his courtiers.
The petitioner’s ducats being well-nigh exhausted, there was no time to be lost; for he knew that if he did not carry his nephews’ pardon in his pocket before they were quite gone, the promises made would be void and he should have the whole to pay over again. With his last bribe, therefore, he prevailed upon a wily courtier to procure an order, signed by the duke’s hand, to the judge of the district, remitting the punishment for the sake of a slight fine, and having received the ducal seal, it was delivered to the troublesome old man. By this time he was become nearly weary of his undertaking, and almost regretted, as he parted with his last douceur, that he had not left his hopeful nephews to their fate. In fact, such was his chagrin that he was seized with an acute fever only the very day before the time appointed for their execution, while their pardon still remained in his pocket.
What was now to be done? It was impossible he could reach the seat of justice himself, and in whom could he confide so precious a charge? On consulting the wily courtier, a messenger was pointed out to him, one of the most celebrated for swiftness of foot and secrecy of despatch among all the scouts at court. He was hired, therefore, at a moment’s warning, while the sole consolation of the good uncle was the hope of living long enough to behold once more the faces of his wretched nephews, and of bestowing upon them a little dying advice.
Having given him, therefore, the most particular directions to lose no time upon the road, and even paid a sum in advance, the troublesome old gentleman awaited with 63 some anxiety the news of his trusty messenger’s return. He was to be at the place early the next morning, and to deliver the letter into the judge’s own hands, after which he was to receive a further reward. Fired at this last idea, and eager to maintain his character as the most swift-footed Mercury at court, he posted away without stopping until he reached Castel Goffredo, where, taking a little repose, he proceeded early to the city gate, observing to the captain that he was on the duke’s business and must have his pass.
Proceeding accordingly, he was just entering the great square near the judge’s house when he was met by an immense concourse of people, in the midst of whom were the two identical prisoners heavily chained, just going to the place of execution. How should the messenger, however, know this? He believed he was in very good time, and being quite unacquainted with the particular nature of the business, he determined to stop and watch the whole proceeding. Falling into the crowd, he approached the scaffold, saw them mount, and witnessed them take their final leave of the world; after which he proceeded very leisurely with their pardon in his pocket to the house of the judge. He congratulated himself by the way on the expeditious manner in which he had fulfilled the old man’s commands, and presented himself with no little importance at the mansion of justice, expecting to receive a further fee, with many commendations for his celerity and despatch.
On opening the letter and finding the nature of its contents, the judge uttered an exclamation of surprise, watching the messenger attentively, and questioning him very narrowly as to the occasion of his delay.
“Dolt, idiot, blunderhead!” he exclaimed, “when did you set out from Goito?”
“One hour before midnight; all in the dark, please your lordship; that is, I got my orders about that time, and set off at two.”
“You did, did you?” replied the other. “You are enough to make Solomon himself blaspheme! Where did you stop, you most egregious fool?”64
“Stop! stop! I ran every mile of the way, please your lordship; and never stopped at all, except to see two robbers executed this morning, and I knew I could afford time for that.”
“Ah! villain, idle villain!” returned the judge; “do you know you have been the death of both of them, and it were well if you could lose your head in their place;”
He proceeded too upbraid him in no very gentle terms, being really concerned at so untoward an accident, and, moreover, being, for a judge, very humanely inclined. In this last point, indeed, he was very unlike the generality of his learned brethren, who upon passing sentence before dinner or in a bad humor are very apt to make light of persons’ lives. Our swift-footed Mercury now found himself in a strange dilemma; for in place of being praised, as on former occasions, for his speed and alacrity, he only gained hard words, his lordship threatening to make a severe example of him. His pride, however, was so much hurt in being reproached as an idle, lounging, slovenly sluggard, unworthy of the duke’s confidence, or indeed of anything but a halter, that he could no longer restrain his indignation.
“My lord,” he replied, “your lordship ought to speak within some bounds, and recollect that you are speaking to one of the best, nay, the very best and swiftest foot-courier in the duke’s service. Consider, I set out at midnight, and I got here before daybreak this morning, stopping only, as I tell you, to see those two villains kicking their heels in the air; and surely I had a right to have some little diversion after running so many leagues so very fast. The old gentleman ought to have told me the particular business I was engaged for; as it is, you see it is not my fault.”
“It is your fault and I will make an example of you for it, sir: I will teach you a little more humanity than to take a pleasure and lose your time in beholding tragedies of this kind.”
“Oh, Lord, Lord!’ cried the poor fellow, falling at the judge’s feet, “forgive me this time, and I will never 65 stop as long as I have breath again. Oh, oh! I wish I had only known I was to save the poor, dear, innocent creatures’ lives; I would have been here before daybreak; I swear by my legs, I would!”
“Know! you rogue,” echoed the judge, “did not you know it was a matter of life and death?”
“No, my lord; nobody told me anything about that,” cried the distressed courier.
“Why, that somewhat alters the aspect of the case, to be sure,” said the judge; “it will turn out to be the old gentleman’s fault, I believe, after all.”
“And he will most likely be dead before I get back,” cried the courier; “so that there will be no need to tell him at all.”
“Aye, aye! you will finish him and all his relations, I dare say,” said the judge; “get away with you, rogue, and do not stop to see anybody hanged by the way; but it is all perhaps for the best; it is all in the hands of the Lord.”
And so in truth it appeared to be, inasmuch as neither of these devoted wretches were in the least deserving of pardon, and justly suffered the penalty of their manifold sins and offenses. Of this his lordship took care to send a full account to the duke, regretting, nevertheless, that for once it had not been in his power to comply with his excellency’s commands, which he should have done had they been archfiends of mischief instead of common felons, by pardoning them as he had wished.
“The whole blame of the affair,” he said, “attached to the old uncle, who ought not to have entrusted so important a commission to the hands of an ignorant messenger, who instead of performing it stopped by the way to see his nephews hanged.”
* 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] .
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