From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 313-322.313
AT the time when the Marquis of Pescara was governor in the Milanese, there lived two gentlemen of the respective names of Raffaello Chiecaro and Antonio Capputo, who had obtained from the senate the use of some public stoves, which, on merely paying a small annual tax, made them very large returns, consuming only half the usual proportion of fuel. Now, near the piazza of San Stefano resided a certain retainer to the court of King Philip, a man of a free and liberal turn of mind, very generally esteemed by his acquaintance. How he first became intimate with Signor Chiecaro I am at a loss to state; but certain it is that he was frequently seen beguiling his hours at the house of the wily Genoese.
The latter, desirous one day of trying how far he could play upon the courtier’s credulity, observed to him: “Do you see this sonnet, my dear signor? If you please, I will teach you a very curious art. Read it; it is Petrarch’s, and begins, you see —
Now, strange as you may think it, I will show you a different sonnet under this, beginning —
“Nay, I defy you, that is impossible,” cried his friend, “or, if it be possible, pray let me learn quickly how it may be done.”
With an air of importance the Genoese put his hand into his pocket and took out a small flagon, into which he dipped a bit of cotton and touched the letters of the first sonnet, which quickly made way for those of the second. To the eyes of his companion the whole of this appeared little less than a miracle: he declared, in his excessive admiration, that it was a secret worthy the possession of the greatest princes in the world.
“Yet it is yours for all that,” replied the Genoese, “and when you wish to write what is not meant for every eye, you have only to dissolve so much Roman vitriol in a drop of fresh water, and take a virgin quill never yet contaminated with ink and write what you please. The moment it is dry the writing will disappear; and having brought this to perfection, you will next prepare the following kind of ink: Take a handful of wheat straw, set it on fire, but look well to your house, by clapping a large extinguisher upon it before it be well burnt out. The residue will be a fine charcoal, which you will please to boil in the specified quantity of white wine, which will give you the ink required to write upon any other subject in the same letter that you may think proper, the former inscription lying concealed. When you wish this last to appear, take some Istrian galls, pounded in aqua-vitae, and having thus extracted their virtue, dip into it a piece of cotton; pass it lightly over the page, and the letter you want will appear.”
Here the Genoese ceased, and so delighted was the silly courtier with the secret that he would willingly have bestowed upon him any reward he had asked. But the time was not yet come, and having received it gratuitously, our hero could only evince his warm gratitude for the gift. Having gone thus far, Signor Chiecaro, elated at his success, touched upon a variety of other topics; among which, after inviting his friend to take the fresh air in his garden, he put the following question:315
‘Pray, my dear signor, have you any room in your house with a close furnace that would retain the heat?”
“Indeed I have,” said the other, “and I will convince you of it directly.”
So introducing our Genoese into the place, who expressed himself perfectly satisfied with it, the latter again inquired, “Have you such a thing as a small caldron in the house?”
“Yes, I have,” was the reply.
“Well, let it be broken, then, into pieces of about four fingers’ breadth, and let them be well heated over a huge charcoal fire. You will then cool them as I shall point out to you. Take half a flask of strong vinegar, throw into it a good handful of salt and as much pulverized tartar, and then suddenly quench the fiery metal into by a speedy, deep, and satisfactory immersion. Repeat this five or six times over, by which the plates will be fully prepared for the ensuing process; the contrast between heat and cold being everything upon which we have to depend. These experiments will find you sufficient employment until the morrow, when I will return and acquaint you with the grand processes I have in view; only let the whole be conducted with the utmost secrecy, and no one touch the key of the apartment but yourself.”
Flattering himself with the possession of some yet more valuable secrets, our simple hero promised to obey him in everything, and accordingly the next morning exhibited the result of his labors to his view. Commending him very highly, the wily Genoese now said,:
“Truly, I believe you will never be at a loss how to proceed.”
“I believe so too,” said our conceited gentleman, to the no small amusement of the other, “for you see what I have done.”
“Next, then,” added his friend, “you must cut up the metal into small bits, weigh out of it three ounces, and melt it down in a crucible until it becomes liquid. Into this throw, leaf by leaf, the herb which I now give you,” taking 316 about fifty plantain stalks out of his handkerchief. “Do you know what it is?”
“Oh, yes; there is plenty of it growing in my meadow just by,” said our hero.
“You are a fortunate man, then,” rejoined his friend. “You must throw it into the melted copper, and leave it to cool in the crucible, watching it frequently till I come again.”
“I will take care to do so,” said our hero, and proceeded forthwith to business.
His next object was to gather as much of the plantain root as he could possibly find, to give the proper tinge, as he was told, to the metal, and he proceeded to weigh out and note down the various proportions with a piece of charcoal upon the wall. Being quite ignorant, however, of the process of fusing, of the proper degree of heat, and the best mode of confining it in the crucible, he placed it on a large heap of charcoal, and set to work with a little pair of bellows, about as powerful as a lady’s fan, to blow it into a flame. When he thought it began to melt, he opened the crucible, and exposing it to the air, the metal became as hard and cold as before. Repeating the same experiment until he was quite weary and half roasted alive before the fire, to his infinite delight he saw it begin to melt, and threw in the plantain leaves as directed. Then, no longer able to stand, and covered with dust and smoke, he lay down in a profuse perspiration, awaiting the arrival of his arch-deceiver, who approved of everything he had done, and next advised him to go and consult some chemists as to the value of his products, and learn how much they would give him the ounce.
Believing he should soon penetrate into some greater secrets, faint and weary as he was, our hero hastily seized his cloak and sword, and ran as fast as his strength permitted to the shop of a certain M. Ercole, an assayer, and found him just as he was going to supper. Earnestly entreating him to put it to the test upon the spot, though the assayer begged hard for a little time, he was at length prevailed 317 upon to try a small piece of the new metal over the fire, to which he added a few bits of lead. Soon after he declared, on examining the crucible, that he had detected several grains of gold, and that he was prepared to offer him two crowns and a half per ounce for such a product. Being well aware he had not made use of any gold, our experimentalist upon this observed:
“But you are very much deceived, friend Ercole, in supposing there is any gold in the case; I did not put a single fraction of a grain in it.”
“Surely,” said the assayer, “you will allow me to believe my own eyes; here is the gold, and you are one of the most fortunate men in the world if you really did not put any gold in it.”
Hearing these words, the poor gentleman was overpowered with joy, and beseeching him to make a fresh trial, which succeeded equally well with the former, he assured his friend the assayer that he should be glad to let him have the whole of the metal on the terms he had mentioned. The assayer was extremely anxious to learn the exact process he had observed in fusing it, which our hero, however, with an air of infinite importance, tried to evade, and at length flatly refused to make him acquainted with the secret. Then, promising to bring fresh samples very soon, he retired and went to rest, though quite unable to close his eyes on account of the multitude of castles in the air that ceased not to haunt his imagination.
His next meeting with his friend the Genoese was a very joyous one. He informed him, with tears of gratitude, of the grand test and the complete success of his experiments.
“Then I am now satisfied,” returned the Genoese, “for I perceive you are quite equal to conduct the whole process without my farther assistance. Indeed, your facility and skill are truly astonishing; and if you still indulge the least doubt of your own ability, pray mention it.”
“Nay,” replied his friend, “I have none; I think I stand in need of no farther directions; and I have only to express my gratitude for the ample instructions you have 318 already given me. Only acquaint me in what manner I can at all requite you, for I assure you I shall think nothing too great for the noble secrets you have confided in me.”
“Say no more,” said the Genoese; “I have only to entreat that you will value the secret for my sake, and unfold it to no one.”
Unable to make any adequate return to this kind and courteous language, our hero could only press his friend’s hand in silence, who, embracing him tenderly, took his departure. Thus fancying himself in full possession of unlimited wealth, he began to calculate the different sums which he intended to bestow upon his friends and relatives, saying to himself as he proceeded:
“Yes, I will purchase the castle for Pietro; my good Paolo shall have an estate now, but Giovanni must have the marquisate. Thanks, great thanks to the Almighty, I shall at length have a little money in my pocket in addition to his majesty’s pension, which I can throw about on all sides as I please. My sole fear is that the money-market will not be able to supply me fast enough for my precious metal, though I dispose of it in all parts of the world.”
Then, after revolving the subject deeply in his mind, he resolved to form a complete establishment for the manufacture of the precious article, hiring a number of artificers to assist him in the business, and to collect a quantity of plantain roots wherever they were known to grow. These he stored up by fifty and a hundred loads at a time, until he had completely ransacked the country for many miles round. He employed all the boys and women he could find, whom he supplied with baskets to bring the plantains to his house in such quantities as to excite the curiosity and wonder of all the neighbourhood.
Inquisitive to learn the nature of such proceedings, his wife, frequently applied to him for an explanation, but always in vain, being told to attend to her household affairs as he was fully competent to manage his own. When he had made his final preparations, his friend the Genoese 319 one day came to him, with a countenance full of anxiety, and accosted him thus
“I wish, from my very soul, I had never undertaken this speculation from the senate, with all its pretended privileges: a curse upon all such furnaces, I am heartily sick of the job!”
“My dear Raffaello,” cried our hero, “what is it that has thus disturbed you?”
“What is it?” replied the wily Genoese; “why, it is this: I wish to go and leave this business with which our senate has saddled me (and yet I am compelled to keep to my engagement), and to set out immediately for Genoa. Now, I am come to beg you will please to lend me a hundred ducats until my return, which I shall take as a particular favour.”
“Oh, certainly,” said our hero, and immediately went out, and returned with a bag of gold, saying, “Help yourself, my dear friend, and take as many as you please; for I owe you more, far more than anything I can repay. Indeed, I wish you would deign to put my gratitude to a severer test; I have friends who will join me in assisting you to a much larger amount.”
“I thank you,” said the Genoese, “I will only take this sum at present; it is quite sufficient for the object I have in view.”
Then quietly pocketing the money, he took his departure, leaving our poor hero to carry on his operations alone. He had already expended more than a thousand crowns in the purchase of some buildings from Angelo Coiro, near Monte Brianza, admirably situated, as he imagined, for the purpose of carrying on his extensive business. Hither were conveyed the materials of his new trade, loads of charcoal and plantain, with crucibles, brass caldrons, and silver plate; believing he was the first man who could boast of having set up a grand manufactory of gold. And there, shutting himself up, he superintended his enormous furnace, stripping himself to the skin in order the better to heat his crucibles, and blowing with all his might to produce 320 the fusion of his metals. Great was the fire, and great his toil and torture though not equal to his desire of beholding the gold. Three hours incessantly he blew and blew, trying different kinds of processes and different-sized vessels, without the least effect. The strong heat and the working of the bellows together began at length to prove quite too much for his strength, while he stood in a violent perspiration from head to foot without being any nearer the accomplishment of his task. The rest of his fires were in the same predicament, not the least fusion of the metals appearing, and the whole of his establishment, servants and assistants, were as weary and exhausted as himself. Eight hours had now elapsed, when the place becoming heated like one immense stove, and our poor hero having twice fainted away, he was borne home by his people, who refused any longer to bear the brunt of the day.
His wife, who had observed a remarkable change in him of late, an unaccountable elevation and inequality of spirits, wild at times and at times depressed, conceived no time was to be lost. Seeing him, then, brought home in the condition we have described, his face fiery, and his clothes covered with foam and dust, crying out at the same time loudly for drink, she compassionately ran towards him, and accosted him thus:
“What can be the reason, my dear, of your strange conduct, shutting yourself up day and night in a place too hot for a salamander? Would to heaven that that old wretch of a Genoese had broken his neck before you saw him! would that the great demon had caught him in his clutches! would that you had not been such a fool, my dear, as to have listened to him!”
Hearing himself thus tenderly apostrophized by his wife, who presumed to intermeddle in things that he thought did not concern her, the poor man, impelled by rage and disappointment, lent her two hearty cuffs on the side of her head, which somewhat checked the flow of her tenderness. Then, out of mere spite, instead of going to repose as he ought to have done, he got up and ran to his friend 321 the assayer’s, to put his folly to a further test, with the same unhappy result as before.
His final hopes now rested upon the return of the arch-villain Chiecaro to put him into the right way again; but after bearing the sickness of hope deferred with great fortitude during many weeks, he bethought him of following the Genoese, though he had no directions how to find him. First, however, he essayed the effect of sending letters and special messengers in all directions, without hearing the least tidings of him. His own personal exertions proved equally fruitless; and in this state of affairs, lost in a world of chimeras, he passed his unhappy time till Christmas. About that time happening one day to be in company, he heard a party of gentlemen conversing, one of whom observed:
“If you can do this, you will render me a great service; for a certain speculation by which I hoped to become richer than the Grand Turk, has ended in smoke. An old villain of a Genoese, whom God confound, has emptied my pockets of all my ready cash, though he seemed to come, like Jupiter, in a golden shower.”
“And how,” replied his friend, “did he inveigle you? What was the trick?”
“What was the trick, indeed! You shall hear! He wanted to teach me how to make gold, and I, like a simple one who loves simplicity, wished to learn. For this purpose I advanced three hundred gold crowns, deposited in the hands of Luca Contile.”
“Did you speak of gold crowns?” cried our hero, no longer able to repress his curiosity, “and of a Genoese? For pity’s sake, dear captain, go on!”
This the captain did, and mutual explanations and condolements then took place. The only fact which they could clearly ascertain was that he had succeeded in the same manner in cheating them all; that he was gone, and no longer to be found. After conversing for some time together upon the subject, and considering in what way the losses they had suffered might best be repaired, they arrived at the conclusion that the most effectual plan would 322 be to avail themselves of the same means as had been practised by the Genoese, whenever they had the good fortune to meet with any friend as simple as they had themselves been. Somewhat consoled with having hit upon this ingenious method of reimbursing themselves, they laughed heartily and took leave.
* 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.