From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 81-87.81
MESSER GHERARDO BENVENGA was a Venetian silk-mercer, a very pleasant and good kind of man, and as creditable as you would wish to find any tradesman. Rising early, as usual, one Sunday morning, being the day he had fixed upon, to save time, for the payment of the half-year’s rent of his shop, he was no sooner washed and dressed than he counted out the money.
“First of all,” he says, “I will go to mass, after putting these ten sequins in my purse, and when I have heard mass, I will just step and despatch this other little affair.”
He had no sooner said it than he snatched up his mantle, crossed himself devoutly, and sallied forth. Passing along near the said church, he heard, by the tinkling of a little bell, that the mass was going out.
“Oh,” he cried, “it is going, full of unction.”
So he hastens into the church, touches the holy water, and approaches the altar where the priest pronounces the introitus. He knelt upon a form, where there was no other person except a very pleasing and good-natured looking lady, adorned in the Venetian fashion with a Florentine petticoat and a black silk vest, apparently just from the mercer’s, trimmed with sleeves of the finest lace, along with gold rings, bracelets of the richest chain gold, and a necklace set with beautiful diamonds, while, full of devotion and modesty, she held a very prettily bound book in her hands, from which she was singing hymns like an angel. Messer Gherardo turned his eyes towards her a few moments, anxious to profit by so lovely and edifying an example, without the least alloy of any more terrestrial feeling, and accordingly drew a little psalter from his pocket, and began, 82 quite absorbed within himself, and shaking his head with emotion, to join in the anthem.
The mass being at length over, Messer Gherardo bethought himself, according to courteous custom, of making a chaste obeisance to the lady; but while he was preparing, she had already passed, and he followed, marveling within himself in what manner she would have returned his intended civility. On getting out, he instinctively took the road to pay his ten pieces to the landlord, an agent for one of the noble Morosini family, and knocking at the door, he said:
“I am come here to pay money as usual, but you have never yet returned my calls to pay me anything; come and look at my shop some day.”
In this jocular strain he thrust his hand into his purse, feeling on all sides without finding a single sequin. “Am I out of my wits?” he cried. “What is this?” and he rolled his eyes like a demoniac, as if under the operation of the bitterest torments. At length, feeling something hard sticking in a corner of his purse, and hastily seizing it, he drew forth a beautiful bracelet of fine gold with diamond clasps, amounting to the value of some two hundred ducats. The poor tradesman was half petrified at the sight. At first he believed it to be the effect of witchcraft, then a trick; and was altogether so much at a loss that turning briskly round, while the agent grinned in his face, he ran down the steps without saying a single word.
“Messer Gherardo, good Messer Gherardo,” he cried, as he held pen and paper in hand to give him a receipt, “what is the matter?”
Then looking out of the window, he beheld him running along at a furious pace, everyone making way for him. The agent, shaking his head (for he now thought him a little beside himself), returned to his accounts, regretting only that he had not received the money; while Messer Gherardo, who had all his wits about him as far as his interest was concerned, hastened to the house of his friend the goldsmith, anxious to ascertain the value of the toy, in lieu 83 of the sum he had lost. When he heard it amounted to at least two hundred ducats, he suddenly bethought him of the richly dressed lady who stood near him at mass, imagining he had seen it upon her arm, but of this he was not certain. He next conjectured she had played him a trick, but neither the time nor place seemed to warrant such a supposition. Besides he did not know her, nor she him, though he wished to learn where she lived.
“I think I have guessed it though now,” he exclaimed, as if a sudden bright thought had struck him. “My purse lay beside me; I was buried in profound devotion, and she, wanting money, thrust her hand into my money-bag, and by accident left the bracelet behind her.”
Yet how to reconcile this, he thought, with so much fashion, beauty, and devotion as she displayed? He felt ashamed of such an accusation, and tried to banish it from his mind. He resolved, however, to keep the bracelet and quietly await the result; then returning in better spirits to settle his account with the agent, not without some jeers, he pretended to have forgotten the money, which, having now paid, he felt much happier and easier, and, with a smile on both sides, they took leave.
The next day Messer Gherardo, walking along the streets, observed, upon turning a corner, affixed to a pillar, the following advertisement in large letters:
“Lost or stolen, a rich gold bracelet with handsome diamond clasps; whoever will restore it to the owner, by leaving it at the sacristy of Santo Marcuola, shall receive a handsome reward.”
Messer Gherardo, thunderstruck at these words, read them again and again, as he would otherwise have had no scruples in retaining the bracelet. As it was, however, such was the singularity of the case that he could not help laughing as he directed his steps toward the said sacristy, where, upon his arrival, he inquired for the curate. Taking him on one side, he said:
“My reverend father, my business with you is no other than a confession, and if you will give me permission, I 84 will inform you. But you must grant me one condition, without which I must take my leave as I came.”
“Speak out,” replied the curate; “what is it? If proper, it is granted.”
“Then,” returned Messer Gherardo, “I am the man who found the bracelet; but I will never restore it, except it be to the lady herself. Now I beg you will not attribute this to any suspicion or any improper motive; only it will be far preferable, on the lady’s account, that I should return it to her without other witnesses. If you will be so good as to point out her abode to me, you may rely upon it that I will go forthwith, like a good subject of the Catholic Church, and return it to the owner; otherwise you must excuse me. I shall keep the bracelet, and without the slightest scruples of conscience.”
The curate replied: “To any person who should restore such an ornament I have received orders to give three sequins, that he might treat himself to a good dram; but as to you, signor, you are perhaps not in want of one.”
“Signor,” retorted Messer Gherardo, “I would not return it for a hundred sequins; but if I may restore it into the lady’s own hands, I will require nothing.”
“My son,” replied the curate, “I would recommend to you to entertain a little more reverence and holy fear of Heaven. Surely you would not keep what is not yours; but as you seem resolved to restore it only to the lady, so be it. I will call my clerk, since you are so very obstinate, and he shall point out to you her dwelling.”
So, after accompanying him a little way, the little fat clerk said, “That is it, signor,” pointing to a very handsome-looking and spacious house; and upon gaining admission he was shown up a magnificent staircase into a large saloon, the walls all covered with silk linings, the sight of which made the mercer’s heart glow; and such was his confusion at the idea of his temerity in entering that he could scarcely ascertain the quality of the silk. At first he thought of making his escape, imagining that he had committed some gross blunder and might be running his head into a great 85 scrape. While doubtful in what way to act, but gradually edging out, a maidservant advanced from the staircase, crying:
“Who is it? Pray who are you and what do you want?”
Half struck dumb, with his hat held politely in his hand, Messer Gherardo replied:
“I wish to see the lady of the house, and, if perfectly convenient to her ladyship, to be permitted to speak with her”; and this he said in his usual style when waiting on the great to receive commissions.
“Madam,” cried the girl, calling to her mistress in an adjacent apartment, “it is a gentleman who wishes to speak to you about some business.”
“Then let him come. Why do not you show him in?” answered a voice that startled our poor tradesman, as he hastened to obey her commands. Sitting in an easy-chair, he discovered, on entering, the same identical beautiful lady whom he had seen at mass, a surprise that had almost cost him his life, for a few degrees more would infallibly have amounted to a fit of apoplexy.
The lady looked full at Messer Gherardo, and grew pale as the wife of Lot when she was turned into a pillar of salt; in fact, she had nearly swooned away; for it had never entered into her head, when she first missed her bracelet, that she could have left it behind on withdrawing her hand out of the old gentleman’s purse. But such was her hurry to secure the ten pieces, which she effectually did as she observed him absorbed in his devotions, that it is hardly surprising she was not aware of the loss of it when it came unclasped. On the other hand, she concluded she must have lost it on the road from church, or she would never have had the folly to advertise for it. Little did she think, then, such shame and exposure were reserved for her. But Heaven, which frequently punishes guilty mortals in a way they least expect, never fails to overtake offenders.
Messer Gherardo, in his turn, fixed his eyes upon the lady, whose looks were still directed towards him, neither 86 of them uttering a word. At length, however, our tradesman, being naturally possessed of much presence of mind and discrimination, further disciplined by his habit of attending to all ranks and descriptions of purchasers, pulled the fatal bracelet from his pocket, and holding it by one end, proceeded to observe:
“I am at a loss, madam, to say in what manner the accident occurred; it is plain that you lost this bracelet, but the wretch has stolen ten sequins out of my purse. Yet you see I have caught him, and hold him fast by the hair,” showing the bracelet in his hand; “and if he refuses to make restitution of my money, which is my heart’s blood, I will put him into such durance that you will never have the pleasure of beholding the offender again. I know that he is a familiar friend, very dear to you, and that you love him as well as woman ever loved such pretty things. For the sake of your reputation and of your family, then, I would advise you to pay his fine, or I will take such revenge upon him as will prove very disagreeable to you. If, on the other hand, you consent to pay what he owes me, the scandal of this affair shall go no further than ourselves, and I will set the thief free; not, however, without desiring you to give him a word of advice for the future and a little correction at your hands, such as he will remember to the latest day of his life.”
In spite of her confusion, the lady could not avoid bursting into a fit of laughter as he concluded; and upon recovering her presence of mind, she adopted the most prudent course by walking to her desk and taking out ten sequins, perhaps the identical pieces which she had pilfered and which had arrested the guilty bracelet in the very act. Turning towards Messer Gherardo, she said:
“I vow, my dear signor, that the moment the rogue had committed the deed he ran away from me, dreading my displeasure. Here is the money he stole; and since you are pleased to set him at liberty and to keep the affair secret, which I entreat you to do, I shall consider myself eternally bound to you. As you say, I will keep him in 87 order for the future, and prevent the possibility of his becoming guilty of such an offense again.”
She then counted the pieces into his hand, and received the bracelet in return; and after a few more ceremonies, the good man took his leave. It is certain that this lady was a woman of fashion, of respectable family and connections, the wife of a wealthy citizen, too fond of gayety and extravagance. Her husband not supplying her fast enough with money for dresses and play, she was in the habit of drawing from other resources, in the manner we have here detailed. It is thus that our errors and vices obscure the intellect and lead us gradually into the abyss of ruin.
* 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].