From "The Italian Novelists" translated from the originals with Critical and Biographical Notices by Thomas Roscoe; Frederick Warne and Co.; London; [undated edition, c. 1900; first published, 1824]; pp. 280-301.
Novels of Giovambattista Giraldi Cinthio.
The “Hecatomithi,” or Hundred Fables, were first published in 1565, and consisted, notwithstanding their title, of only seventy stories, a contradiction noticed by his friend Piccolomini in a letter to the author, prefixed to the “Hecatomithi,” and dated the 12th of January 1563, in which he says: “I assure you it is long since I have had the pleasure of perusing any work so entertaining as yours. But I cannot conceive your reason for entitling it ‘Hecatomithi,’ when it contains no more than seventy novels.” From this it might be inferred that the author postponed his further prosecution of the task until he was far advanced in life, the letter in question being dated 1563, just ten years prior to his decease; a sufficient length of time for the composition of the additional number of novels. In a poetical introduction to his work, Cinthio, however, asserts that the entire series was the production of his youth, though he does not state his reasons for holding so great a proportion of them in reserve, while the put the others forth with a title so little adapted to them. On this subject: he has the following lines, alluding to their early composition: —
“Poscia ch’ a te, lavor de’ miei primi anni,
Accio c’ habbia nel duol qualche ristoro,
Mi chiaman nell’ età gli affanni,” &c.
“Since now the griefs of eld my thoughts recall
To the fond labours of my boyish years,
Cheating the heavy hours of half their pain,” &c.
And farther on:
“Dunque se stata sei gran tempo occolta,
O de miei giovenili anni fatica,
In cui studio già posi, e cura molta.”
———”Young tasks, long time neglected,
Yet treasured up, that cost me many a sigh,
And many an anxious thought in times gone by.”
The “Hecatomithi” of Cinthio is divided into two parts, each containing five decades, composed of ten novels each; under which arrangement, the number ought to amount to the “Hecatomithi,” or Hundred Stories. This title, however, is scarcely yet applicable to the work, inasmuch as, with the ten introductory novels prefixed to the first decade, it will be found to contain so many beyond what it really imports. The occasion of the production of his novels is referred by their author to the famous sack of Rome, and to the consequent pestilence which occurred soon after the storming of the city. In imitation, then, of Boccaccio, Cinthio feigns that a party of ladies and gentlemen seeking refuge from the contagion, and from the horrors around them, set sail for Marseilles, and beguile the irksomeness of their voyage with the relation of tales either of terror or of humour.
Cinthio appears, in many respects, to have had Boccaccio in view, as well in the subject as in the disposition and manner of his work. In the tales themselves, however, there is but little resemblance to his model: the imaginative portion is less pleasing, and the incidents are often improbably and revolting. The style is likewise laboured and involved to a degree of painful care and fastidiousness, while it is still inferior to that of earlier authors in point of purity and correctness. But, with all his errors, he is a fine and powerful writer; and, with the terrific subjects he has chosen, the strong dramatic interest which he contrives to awaken, and the energy and passion thrown into his narratives, he is perhaps, of all novelists, the best calculated to rouse the sympathies and attract the admiration of his countrymen. Some injudicious admirers, indeed, have on this account presumed to place him above his celebrated predecessor, not scrupling to assert that he is in no way inferior to the great Boccaccio. Yet it is his faults, his daring and extravagant genius, which have given rise, in some degree, to this blind partiality — a partiality which can only be accounted for by the violent and often ferocious character of the times in which he wrote. Thus his tragic stories are all of a dark and terrific description, abounding in extravagance and atrocities, on which the author’s imagination seems to delight to dwell, until, like some great enchanter, he has spell-bound the faculties of his readers. He appears to have exhausted the catalogue of human crimes, and to have ransacked every country and every age, sparing neither classic nor romantic traditions, for subjects which he might dissect and display to the world in all their horrible minuteness.
The introduction, consisting of ten stories, professes to hold forth the happiness of connubial love and the fatal effects of illicit intercourse. 283 The first decade is composed of miscellaneous stories; the second, histories of attachments formed in opposition to the will of relatives and superiors; the third, of the infidelity of wives and husbands; the fourth, of those who, by laying snares for others, accomplish their own ruin; the fifth, examples of connubial fidelity in trying circumstances; the sixth, acts of generosity and courtesy; the seventh, bon mots and sayings; the eighth, examples of ingratitude; the ninth, remarkable vicissitudes of fortune; the tenth, acts of chivalry.
Of the stories which are of his own invention, the second tale of the second decade is that of Orbecche, daughter of Sulmone, king of Persia, who, refusing the hand of the prince of Parthia, unites her fate with that of Orontes, an Armenian, with whom she flies from her father’s court, and undergoes a variety of sufferings, From its wild and extravagant character it was long a favourite story with the Italians, and enjoyed a reputation far beyond its merits, many dramas and other pieces being founded upon it, both in Italy and elsewhere. One of these, from the pen of the novelist himself, who dramatised many of his own stories, is very highly esteemed in Italy.
The seventh story of the third decade of Cinthio is deserving of more particular notice, as having furnished Shakespeare with the incidents of his celebrated tragedy of “Othello.” A few of the more striking coincidences and variations in the two productions will here be pointed out, in which Shakespeare has generally improved upon the novelist. In the drama Iago is actuated to revenge by jealousy and resentment arising from Cassio’s promotion; while in the novel he is merely influenced by love turned into hatred. In Shakespeare, the villain employs his wife to steal the handkerchief, but in the Italian this deed is performed by himself. The noble character of Othello is also wholly of the poet’s creation, he being drawn by the novelist with the vulgar features of a morose, selfish, and cruel husband. Much of the conclusion is equally the poet’s own, and he has throughout displayed far more brilliancy of fancy and of language. In some instances Shakespeare has rendered the story more probable, tempered its ferocious character, and, by throwing into it the fascination of poetry, sentiment, and passion, has invested it with new dignity and with a new life. Thus in the Italian the Moor is assisted by his Ancient in the murder of Desdemona, yet he has afterwards the temerity to provoke and to dismiss him, which leads to the discovery of the crime — absurdities not adopted in the English drama. In the original the assassins pull down part of the house, in order that it may be supposed that the lady has been buried in its ruins. Iago’s treachery is likewise attributed to Desdemona’s rejection of his passion, in consequence of which he resolves to compass the destruction of both her and Cassio, whom he believes to be the favoured lover. In the Italian he confirms the suspicions of Othello by showing him the handkerchief in the hands of a woman in the lieutenant’s house. He then informs against him in the sequel, and Othello, according to the usual practice, is put to the torture, though without deigning to make any confession. He is subsequently banished, and assassinated by some of Desdemona’s relations in his retreat.284
In his deviations from his model, it will be seen Shakespeare has for the most part improved upon the incidents, although he has in general adhered as closely to the facts as the nature of the respective productions would admit. Several of the characters bear the strongest resemblance to those in the novel, more particularly those of Desdemona, of Cassio, and of the arch-traitor himself. The gradual and artful method pursued by Iago of infusing suspicions, like a slow poison, into the noble nature of Othello, is closely copied from the novelist. This is calculated, to a certain degree, to diminish our admiration of the consummate skill with which the dramatist was supposed to have wrought up and unfolded the whole train of mischief. In drawing his character, too, of the consummate villain, he had adhered, with few traits of difference, to the Italian author; so that in his “Othello,” as in most of the dramas founded upon Italian subjects, the supreme merit of Shakespeare will be found in the magic of his language and versification, in the playfulness and vividness of his fancy, in the truth and beauty of his sentiment; and above all, in that fascinating power which he never fails to exercise over the human passions.
The fifth novel of the eighth decade suggested to Shakespeare the comedy of “Measure for Measure,” of which, however, the immediate original was Whetsone’s play of “Promos and Cassandra.” But on both of these Shakespeare has greatly improved.” ¶
Of the several editions of the “Hecatomithi,” the first appeared at Monteregale, in Sicily, in two volumes 8vo, 1565; the next at Venice, in 1566; followed by a third, at the same place, 1574.
* Hecatomithi, overo Cento Novelle di Giraldi Cinthio. Monteregale, 1563. First edition.
§ Many interesting remarks on Cinthio, and on the literary controversies in which he was engaged, are contained in Barotti’s defence of the Ferrarese authors against the censures of Fontanini.
¶ History of Fiction, vol. ii. p. 428.
In order more securely to enjoy the fruits of his treachery, he sent his two half-brothers, still very young, to the court of the king of Naples. He then formed a union with a daughter of one of the lords of Mantua, by whom he had a son, called after his grandfather 285 Niccolo da Este. But it was the will of Providence, that in the same manner as the usurper’s father had left his infant sons Ercole and Gismondo to his care, he himself, dying soon after, was also compelled to leave his own son Niccolo, yet an infant, to the protection of his brother Borso, the first of this ancient and illustrious family who adopted the title of duke, and who had always been permitted to look forward to the possession of the government, on condition of afterwards leaving it to his young ward, Niccolo, whom he brought up in the noblest manner.
The two brothers, whom the deceased Leonello had banished to the court of Naples, during this time already began to evince numerous proofs both talent and courage, by no means unworthy of their princely descent. The time which the young Niccolo devoted to abandoned pleasures was by them spent in military exercises and other laudable pursuits, most honourable to the character of noble cavaliers. Nor was Borso altogether insensible to their merits. Hearing of their high reputation, he invited the two brothers to return to the court of Ferrara, offering to Ercole the government of Modena, and to Gismondo that of Reggio, still retaining Niccolo at his own court, with the intention of discharging the high trust reposed in him by his brother, by leaving him at his own death the title of lord of Ferrara. The king of Naples, who did not duly appreciate the merit of Ercole, dismissed him from his service, while the latter was instigated by Borso to resent this conduct. Meeting each other soon after in battle, the king, assaulting Ercole, was not only driven back by him, but lost part of his royal mantle, which was torn from his shoulders in the contest. Incensed at this indignity, he vowed deadly revenge against its author, and sought by every means in his power to accomplish his ruin. Having adopted a variety of schemes, all of which proved abortive, he resolved, as a last resource, to employ every art of deceit before he abandoned his design. With this view he despatched some trusty messengers to Ercole, with an offer to assist him in expelling Borso from his dominions, in order to recover the rightful heritage of his ancestors. Ercole, aware of his views, replied to this embassy that he could in no way proceed in the attempt unless he received authority for so doing under the king’s own hand. “And how would you then act?” inquired the messengers from the king. “In such a way,” replied Ercole, “as I might think best calculated to recover my dominions;” and believing from this answer that he intended to pursue the design, they all returned, overjoyed to carry the intelligence to the king. But Ercole, on the contrary, immediately communicated to Duke Borso the whole negotiation that had just taken place, as well as his own answer to the king. The Duke was greatly touched at this proof of honourable conduct on the part of Ercole, and entreated him to persevere and receive the answer of the king. In a short time letters were delivered to him from his majesty, expressing his perfect readiness to afford him, as he had always wished, every assistance in his power to accomplish the object he had in view, representing that an occasion seemed now to offer itself which ought not to be omitted, if he had the resolution to execute what he had previously meditated, 286 and exhorting him to rely confidently on the messenger now sent, as much as if he the king himself were present.
Ercole immediately proceeded to lay these letters before Borso, who had scarcely read them before he received other letters advising him to be upon his guard against Ercole, who entertained designs of depriving him both of his territories and his life. Duke Borso, addressing the bearer of the letters aloud, replied: “Tell your master from me, that the long services of Prince Ercole towards the house of Arragon merit a far different reward; and that he ought to beware lest in his attempts to accomplish another’s ruin he should chance to prepare his own.” This was by no means an agreeable reply to the messenger, who was immediately dismissed. Borso then turning to Ercole observed: “Continue, prince, to manifest the same regard for me, a regard which I think my affection for you deserves. You shall have no reason to complain of me and my conduct towards you in return.” Ercole thanked him for these expressions of esteem, and set out with cheerful and happy feelings on his return to Modena.
When the king of Naples heard the insulting answer of Duke Borso from his messenger, his indignation was such that he now resolved to revenge himself upon both. With this view he fixed upon several bold and reckless characters who dwelt in Modena, whom he conceived best fitted for his purpose. Having formerly been acquainted with Ercole in Naples, and lived upon familiar terms both with him and Borso, they, laying aside every feeling of gratitude and affection, consented to accomplish their ruin, on condition of receiving as the reward of their treason certain castles in the dominions of the king. They determined, therefore, to flatter Ercole with the hopes of recovering his inheritance, and taking advantage of a favourable occasion, they affected to feel great indignation at the idea of his having been so long deprived of his rightful heritage. “The truth is,” they continued, “we have waited so long in vain for the death of Borso, that we are now resolved to make you master of your own territories by force. Besides, we do not feel at all easy about your succession, as he will doubtless wish his nephew Niccolo, in pursuance of his promise to his deceased brother, to succeed him. We will either kill him or take him prisoner, as you like best; but we are determined that you shall henceforth become our ruler.” In his indignation at their treachery, Ercole had very nearly betrayed himself; but checking himself, he affected to enter into their designs, merely requesting to know in what way they imagined it would best succeed. “It is the easiest thing in the world,” answered the traitors; “we are in Borso’s confidence; we have frequently feasted him at our tables, and he is soon coming our way, and has already sent to desire us to bear him company, we can take measures to lay hands upon him as he comes, and thus deliver him into your power. You may then assume your just title and power: if you fail to do so, it will be entirely your own fault.” “This is certainly a most excellent scheme,” returned Ercole; “and I think it may be effected almost as easily as you say. Yet it will require mature consideration to bring it all to a favourable issue. Come to me again to-morrow, and we will adopt final measures of putting it into 287 execution.” They then took their leave of Ercole, not a little elated with their imaginary success.
Ercole, aware that this was a new snare laid for him by the king, who would not fail to accuse him to Borso of treason, bringing these young men as witnesses against him, hastened secretly to Ferrara under cover of the night, nor slackened his pace until he arrived at the palace, where he demanded admission to the Duke. Borso sent the messenger back to learn who was in his company, and on hearing he was alone, he sent a guard of twenty cavaliers, with orders to admit none but Ercole, from whom he eagerly inquired the urgent nature of his business. “The treachery of the king of Naples,” was the reply, “aims not only at my life, but at that of your Excellency;” and here Ercole repeated the whole of his last interview with the traitors, in which they endeavoured, by engaging him in their schemes, to accomplish the ruin of both. “I was on the point,” he continued, “of chastising them as they deserved, but judged it better first to acquaint your Excellency with the extent of their villainy, in order to abide by your opinion in this, as in all other affairs.” The Duke was astonished on hearing their names, having always accounted them amongst the most faithful of his adherents. Yet the voice, the countenance, and the open manner of Ercole, gave so strong an assurance of his sincerity, that he did not venture to question for a moment the truth of his statements. Turning towards him with the utmost confidence, the Duke exclaimed; “What am I henceforth to think of the honour and fidelity of mankind, when these very persons, whom I have so long trusted and favoured as my friends, are found guilty of conspiring against my life! But in order that they may meet with such punishment as their conduct deserves, I should still wish you to feign approbation of their designs, and to render me an exact account of all their motions.” Ercole then mounted his horse, and returned to Modena, where he again met the conspirators on the following day, flattering them that he was now prepared to undertake the great enterprise for which they were there assembled, and that he entertained no doubts of its ultimate success. At the same time he took care to forward to the Duke intelligence of everything which occurred. The ringleader of the plot, pretending that he was about to celebrate the marriage of one of his daughters, set out to Ferrara, with an invitation to the Duke to favour him with the honour of his company at the approaching nuptials. Borso courteously complied with the request, and immediately sent to acquaint Ercole with the fact, and with the measures which he conceived it most judicious to adopt. On the appointed day, when the conspirators were prepared to wait upon the Duke in order to escort him to Modena, they first called upon their friend Ercole, to acquaint him that early on the following morning they should set out to attend the Duke, and delivering him a prisoner into his hands on their return, hoped to hail him as the new ruler of Ferrara. “Heaven so prosper your design,” cried Ercole, “as I mean to bestow upon each of you such a share of the prize that you will never need to wish for more.” They then proceeded to marshal their band of followers, a troop of thirty horse, all 288 brave and reckless men, who were appointed to meet on a certain day in the plains of Buon Porto, where they would be instructed how to act. Ercole, on his side, had written to his brother Gismondo, the governor of Reggio, to furnish as many lances and other troops as he could collect, and then hasten to join him in Modena, or follow with the utmost expedition to Ferrara, in order to secure the persons of certain traitors conspiring against his own life and that of the Duke. The next morning Ercole and the conspirators mounted horse at the break of day, and set out at a gentle pace, all in high spirits, and jesting with one another as they went along. But they had scarcely arrived at Finale, when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by Gismondo with four hundred horse, and at the same moment Ercole unsheathed his sword, and rushing upon the leader of the conspirators, who rode near him, proclaimed him his prisoner, crying out, “Yield, traitors, yield! Did you imagine your base attempts against the noble Duke’s life and my own were unknown to us? No; you will soon met with the just vengeance your crimes deserve. Guards, seize your prisoners; bind them and follow us to Ferrara.” Thus secured, they were conducted to their dungeon in the castle, momentarily awaiting the tidings of their doom.
After expressing his gratitude to the two brothers, the Duke, dismissing them to the government of their respective cities, commanded the Podesta to attend and take the depositions of the prisoners, being resolved to penetrate into their motives for such an atrocious attempt. Perceiving no chance of making their escape, they confessed their guilt, of which they felt truly sensible, and admitted that they deserved to meet their fate, as they had aimed at compassing the death of both Ercole and the Duke. The Podesta upon this inveighed bitterly against their ingratitude and cruelty, in thus consenting, at the instance of their worst enemy, to turn their arms against their benefactor and friend, who had lavished innumerable honours upon them. Without pleading the least mitigation of their crimes, the unfortunate men could only entreat the Podesta that he would deign to use his influence with the Duke to treat them rather according to his known clemency and generosity than the strict tenor of the law. On obtaining their confessions, the Duke immediately proceeded to advise the king of Naples that he had secured the band of conspirators, who were then awaiting their sentence at his hands; that he had been greatly shocked on discovering his majesty to have been a party to their design of assassinating two of his majesty’s most faithful adherents, as the Duke and Ercole always esteemed themselves, one of whom had promoted his interests both in peace and war for above twenty years, while the other had shown himself ready to lay down his life and dominions in the same cause; that the sole fruits these men had reaped in their nefarious attempt were disgrace, imprisonment, and, were they to meet with their just deserts, a shameful death; that, further, it would be for his majesty’s interest in future rather to acknowledge the services of his faithful friends and servants than to compass their destruction by those despicable means which had now been more than once employed against them.289
On reading these words, the conscience-smitten king manifested the strongest signs of emotion, and his pride sunk beneath the deep humiliation which he suffered. “Alas!” he cried, “the Duke only speaks the truth;” and such was his remorse, that suddenly laying aside his long-fostered hatred, he wrote back word, that if he had greatly erred in giving way to feelings of hostility against the noble Duke and his friend, he was now truly sorry for it, and was fully sensible of the fidelity and good-will they expressed for him, of which he trusted to give more convincing proofs in his future conduct. He entreated at the same time that Borso would be equally ready to enter into his views, and, as a pledge of their reconciliation, consent to release the unfortunate men who, at his instigation, had conspired against their noble benefactor.
When the Duke had perused the king’s letter, “Time only will show,” he cried, “what are the real dispositions of the king towards me and Ercole. As for his appeal to my generosity in favour of the prisoners, it is perfectly unnecessary, as I had already determined, without his interference, to pardon them. I shall, however, do it with the greater readiness since we are of the same opinion upon the subject.”
The wretched men were then ordered to be brought before the Duke, who, having first obtained the consent of Ercole, addressed them in the following words: “Your treacherous and ungrateful conduct amply merits a more severe punishment than it is in any human power to inflict. As I cannot do you justice, therefore, in this respect, I trust the compassion I mean to show you may be sufficient to overcome the base and heartless designs you entertained against your best friends. However little you may deserve it, you shall this day admit that I at least have learned how to temper my power, of which you wished to deprive me, with mercy, in pardoning the worst of malefactors. But should you repent of and amend your conduct, you may believe me when I say, that I shall never remind you of what has passed; the way is still open to our former favour and protection. Should you attempt to repeat your offence, you shall be held up to the world as a fearful and memorable example of the judgment of Heaven upon irreclaimable and inveterate vice. But now I forgive you, and my noble-minded friend, Ercole, forgives you, trusting that you will yet become worthy of your former selves, and give your friends reason rather to love and to honour you than to inflict upon you the penalties of the law.” Here the Duke stopped, while, overpowered with a variety of feelings, the wretched men were unable to utter a word. Though snatched from the fate which awaited them, their shame and remorse were terrible. One of them at length, subduing his feelings, exclaimed in a voice scarcely audible: ‘Oh, my dear lord and master! the absolute devotion of our lives to your service and that of your noble house, under obligations almost as deep and lasting as we owe to Heaven itself, will be too little to express our gratitude. We ventured hardly to look up to Heaven for mercy, and yet we have found it in the very persons against whom our arm was raised. Show us, then, only how we can lay down the lives you have so generously spared in some 290 way for your honour and interest;” and the young man wept as he embraced the Duke’s feet. But the latter, raising him up, pressed his hand affectionately in his own, observing the same manners towards the rest of the prisoners, whom after a few days he dismissed to their own abodes, where they were received by Ercole with every demonstration of kindness.
Not long after this act of clemency, Ercole, by the death of Borso, succeeded to the dukedom by the unanimous consent of the people; and the king of Naples, aware of his great prudence and bravery, bestowed his daughter upon him in marriage. And when the Venetians declared war against Ferrara, the Duke was so well supported, that the republic, after a long and severe struggle, was induced to propose a fresh treaty of peace.
Without venturing to answer a single word, the unhappy Filargiro was compelled to leave the place, unaccompanied by his newly-recovered treasure, and filled with sorrow and regret at having refused to fulfil the conditions he had made. The poor old woman, on the other hand, went away overjoyed with her unexpected good fortune, and full of gratitude to the Marquis. She hastened to impart the happy tidings to her daughter, who, after having long indulged a vain attachment, had at length the pleasure of being united to the object of her choice, at the expense of the avaricious old merchant.
* This story is taken from the sixteenth of Petrus Alphonsus, in which we have a philosopher instead of the Marquis of Mantua. The merchant likewise pretends that there were two golden serpents, though he only advertised the loss of one, which made his deceit more flagrant, as the omission was less probable. This story has been imitated in innumerable tales and facetiæ, both French and Italian (History of Fiction, vol. ii. p. 434.)
Whilst listening to the kind and judicious words of her he loved, Giovanni sincerely promised reformation, and believed that he could renounce all his errors, and never more give her reason to complain. But when he was again exposed to temptations, when his boon companions repeatedly invited him, and, half mad with wine, he received imaginary insults from the guests, borne away by the force of his habitual passions, he quickly gave or as quickly received offence. About this time, the kind governor, Trivulzi, was recalled to France, and one of a more severe and implacable disposition soon after assumed his place. Nor was it long before the luckless Giovanni embroiled himself in a hot dispute with an officer of the governor’s guards, until, proceeding from words to blows, they drew their daggers, and his adversary in a few seconds lay dead at Giovanni’s feet. He was speedily secured by several other officers who had witnessed the fact, and being carried before the new governor, was condemned on the following day to lose his head. When these tidings reached the 294 ears of his poor wife, so far from being prepared by all her former fears for so fatal an occurrence, she gave way to the extremity of wretchedness and despair. Inveighing against the cruelty of the governor, her own and her husband’s unhappy fate, she beat her bosom, she tore her hair, and refused the consolations of her nearest relatives. “I will not be comforted,” she exclaimed in a tone of agony, “you do not, you cannot know, the sufferings I endure; and may God, in His infinite mercy, grant that none of you ever may! Away, away, then, and attempt not to assuage the burning agony I feel. It is worse than death; and death I could suffer a thousand times rather than my husband should thus wretchedly and ignominiously end his days.”
Fearing lest she might be induced by the excess of her feelings to put a period to her existence, her friends were unwilling to leave her for a moment alone; yet, finding their attempts to console her were vain, they stood silently about her couch, until the object of their solicitude having wearied herself with her lamentations, came at length to the resolution of either saving her beloved husband or perishing in the attempt. With this view she declared to her friends around her that the only means of mitigating her sorrow would be to procure for her a final interview with her husband, that she might at least have the sad consolation of bidding him an eternal farewell. Compassionating her forlorn condition, they all united in soliciting their husbands and brothers to endeavour to obtain this favour from the governor; and it was permitted that during that night she might share the unhappy youth’s imprisonment. Great was the emotion experienced on both sides when they met: she threw herself into his arms, and her tender reproaches half died away on her lips. “Alas! alas! to what a state has your inconsiderate conduct reduced us! Have I lived to hear that to-morrow you are condemned to suffer death, and that I am doomed to live in the consciousness of such a sad and widowed lot! Ah, why did you not sooner yield to the repeated entreaties and reproaches of your unhappy wife? did I not tell you that some fatal consequence would be sure, sooner or later, to follow? It is come, and you have sacrificed life upon life to your wicked and infatuated career. It is enough; and we have not to pay the forfeit of all your folly and of all —— I fear, alas! I fear to speak it to one who should have time to repent ere yet he die;” and her sobs here interrupting her voice, she gave way to a fresh burst of sorrow. He who had before appeared unmoved and collected was now melted even to tears on witnessing the deep sorrow of his wife, knowing how fondly she was attached to him, and how ill able she was to sustain the sorrows in store for her. “My own Filippa,” he cried, gently raising her up, “I am sorry for you from the bottom of my soul; but try to calm yourself; why distress yourself thus for me? You see I am not terrified at the fate which awaits me. I had rather die thus for having conducted myself valiantly against the brutal wretch who insulted me, than live ignominiously among my fellow-citizens under the control of the soldiers who domineer over us. One, at least, has paid the forfeit of his crime. Console yourself, therefore, my Filippa, seeing that I die honourably, 295 and not like a false traitor or a bandit, but in the noble attempt to tame the ferocity of those who too nearly resemble them. It was the slave of the cruel governor who first provoked me to do the deed; nor could I have received the insulting language he made use of without covering myself with eternal infamy. Then mourn not over my fate; approve yourself worthy of my love; and as you have ever show yourself a sweet and obedient wife, so even now obey me in summoning fortitude and patience to bear our lot;” and kissing her tenderly, he sought to console her by every means in his power. But his kindness seeming only to increase her grief, she declared that she should never be able to survive the affliction of losing him thus, and that she was resolved to save him or to perish in the attempt. “Therefore,” she continued, “am I come; and as I trust that the sufferings we have experienced in this trying scene will have made some impression on your mind, instead of further indulging these womanish complaints, we will summon fortitude to avail ourselves of the last resource which fortune has left in our power.” “How! what is it you mean? inquired her astonished husband. “That you should hasten to avoid the fate prepared for you by disguising yourself in these clothes, which I have brought hither for the purpose. Lose not a moment, for as we are nearly of the same age, and I am not much lower in stature than you, the deception will not easily be detected, and in my dress you may make your escape. The guards are all newly appointed and unacquainted with your person. Once safe yourself, indulge not the least anxiety about me. I am innocent, and, vindictive as he may be, the governor will not venture to shed innocent blood.” “We cannot tell that,” replied Giovanni, “and the very possibility of it is sufficient to make me decline your kind and noble-hearted offer. Should he even threaten you with death, my Filippa, the governor would be certain to have me in his hands again to-morrow. So say no more of this, my love,” he continued, as he kissed away her fast falling tears, “and do not believe that I would thus vilely fly, as if I were afraid to meet my fate. What will the world, what will my dearest friends and fellow-citizens say, when they hear that I have absconded, at the risk of your life, and thus confirmed the worst reports of my adversaries? No, Filippa, never; let me here terminate my restless days rather than in any way endanger yours, which are far more precious in my eyes.”
But the affliction and despair exhibited by his gentle wife on hearing these words were such as may be easier imagined than expressed; nor did she cease uttering the most wild and incoherent lamentations, until, entertaining fears for her reason, he retracted his purpose and promised to favour her design. And as she now assisted him, between sobs, and smiles, to assume his female attire, she declared that she could have borne the thought of his death fighting bravely in the field, or in any way except by the hands of the public executioner. “It would then,” said she, “have been my duty to support myself; but the very idea of your dear life being thus thrown, like a wild weed, away, would have embittered all my future existence. For I recollect having frequently heard my honoured father say, and he was one of the 296 most valiant and high-minded of our citizens, that the truly brave ought never to shun death when a noble occasion offers of serving either their country or their friends, but that it must be truly grievous to the wretch who is compelled to meet it unsupported by any generous enterprise or any sense of honour. And alas! I fear you would at last feel yourself too much in the latter situation; and for myself, I should doubly feel it. So now, dearest love, I entreat you to use every precaution in your power to avoid discovery and effect your escape; breathe not a syllable to any one till you are beyond the reach of danger; consent not to gratify the cruelty of the governor, but save yourself for more honourable enterprises, which may confound the malice of your enemies;” and saying this, she conjured him to hasten away.
Taking a hasty farewell, therefore, Giovanni bound his cloak more closely about him, and presented himself, just as the morning dawned, before the sentinels of the prison. Believing him to be the lady on her return from her husband, he was allowed to pass without examination or suspicion. In the morning the officers entered the prison to bind the hands of the culprit and lead him forth to execution, when the lady, turning suddenly round upon them, inquired, with an air of authority, whether they had been commissioned to treat her with this indignity. On discovering her sex, and after searching every part of the prison for the real offender in vain, the governor was immediately made acquainted with the truth. He ordered her to be instantly conducted into his presence, in the utmost rage at the idea of having been thus overreached by a woman; and so far from commiserating her situation, he threatened her with the severest punishment, declaring that her life should answer for his, and commanding the officers upon their duty to proceed to the place of execution. Thither then the devoted wife was carried, in spite of her tears and entreaties and those of the surrounding people, among whom tidings of the fact having quickly gone forth, a vast concourse of each sex and of all ages were speedily assembled. Mingled sorrow and admiration were depicted on every countenance, and each manly breast burned with admiration of a woman of such exalted fidelity and truth, and with a wish to rescue her from so unmerited a doom. But everywhere surrounded by the tyrant’s satellites, the wretched lady, invoking the name of her husband, and appealing for justice and mercy in vain, now approached the scene of her execution, and, amidst the horror and indignation of the spectators, was on the point of sealing her unexampled fidelity with her life. At this moment a loud cry was heard amongst the spectators, a sword flashed above the heads of the people, and the tumult approaching nearer, Giovanni issued from the crowd, and the next moment had rescued his beloved wife from the soldiers’ hands. Yet fearful lest any act of violence might involve them both in the same fate, he instantly surrendered his sword, and embracing his weeping wife, said, “Did I not tell you I would never permit you to fall a victim to your incomparable generosity and truth? Unhand her, you wretches!” he cried, turning towards the officers; “I am your prisoner and those bonds are only mine.” “No! obey the governor’s 297 commands,” cried the lady; ‘it is I who am sentenced to suffer; venture not to dispute his orders. No, I will not be released,” she continued, as they were about to set her free; and a scene of mutual tenderness and devotion then took pace which drew tears from the hardest heart.
In the meantime the governor, having heard of the arrival of Giovanni, with the same unrelenting cruelty gave orders that both should be executed on the spot, the husband for the homicide he had committed, and his consort for effecting the release of the criminal from prison. The indignation of the citizens on hearing this inhuman sentence could no longer be controlled. An instantaneous attack was made upon the soldiers and officers of the guard, who were prevented from proceeding with their cruel purpose, while numbers rushed towards the mansion of the governor, declaring that they would have justice, and insisting that the whole affair should be laid before the king. Though highly enraged at this popular interference with his sanguinary measures, the governor was compelled to bend before the storm, and with evident reluctance submitted to refer the matter to his royal master. This was no other than the celebrated Francis, whose singular magnanimity, united to his pleasing and courteous manners, still render him so justly dear to the French people.
On receiving an account of the noble and generous manner in which the lady had conducted herself, and of the worth and valour of her husband, with the proofs of mutual fidelity and affection which they had displayed, King Francis, with his usual liberality and clemency, issued his commands that they should instantly, without any further proceedings, be set at liberty. He, moreover, expressed his high admiration of their mutual truth and constancy, and approved of the good feeling and spirit evinced by the Milanese people, declaring his only regret to be, that it was not in his power to render such examples of heroic worth as immortal as they deserved to be. After a more strict investigation of the unhappy affair in which Giovanni had last been engaged, it was discovered that his adversary had really been the aggressor, and had instigated him, both by words and blows, to the terrible revenge which he had taken, in prosecuting which, at the risk of his own life, he had laid the insulting soldier dead at his feet.
Great was the triumph of the people of Milan when the tidings of the pardon of the prisoners arrived, and they paraded the streets with shouts of applause in honour of King Francis, whose clemency and magnanimity failed not to add to his popularity among all ranks. Nor was the rage and disappointment of the bad governor inferior to the joy of the people upon this occasion, as he beheld the procession bearing the happy pair in triumph to their home. The inhabitants instantly despatched a deputation to the French monarch, expressing their grateful sense of his kindness, and their devoted attachment to his royal person.
Such, likewise, was the favourable impression made upon the character of Giovanni by this occurrence, that, influenced also by the excellent 298 example of his wife, he from that period entirely abandoned the dangerous courses which he had so long pursued.*
* The stratagem which conjugal affection here suggests to the wife of the criminal has been more than once successfully practised in real life. The two most memorable instances are those of the Earl of Nithsdale, who by this means escaped from the Tower in 1716, and Count La Valette, whose deliverance under the same circumstances at Paris is fresh in the public recollection.
During the interim there arose many serious tumults and disturbances in Rome, and more especially in the immediate vicinity, where the woods and roads were on all sides infested with banditti, so that no travellers could pass with safety from place to place. Although the Government exercised the utmost vigilance in repressing these disorders, their authors still found an asylum in the caves and mountains, whence they only issued to fall like wild beasts upon their prey, and woful was the fate of those who fell into their hands. It was during this period that Adriano arrived at Rome to assume the pontifical chair, and having arranged the internal affairs of the city, he attended to the complaints of the increasing disorders in the vicinity, resolving to take measures to extirpate the whole race of banditti out of his dominions. Summoning the head of the police to his presence, to him he committed the charge, as the most courageous and prudent officer he knew, of, penetrating into the hidden retreats and fastnesses occupied by these ferocious men. After receiving his commission, the officer immediately provided himself with a select company, both of horse and foot, ready furnished with all kinds of arms and equipments, and attended by a vast number of the fiercest dogs, as if he had been about to make an expedition to clear the woods and mountains of the beasts of prey. On arriving pretty near their haunts, his first object was to draw a line of circumvallation around the strong places which he had ascertained to be the chief rendezvous of the banditti; and then gradually drawing into a narrower circle, with strong nets so spread as to prevent escape, he advanced to the sound of horns and bugles, mingled with the shouts of men and baying of the dogs, to rouse these human monsters from their lairs. The better to discover them, they now urged on the blood-hounds to the track, which soon obliged the robbers to show themselves and assume an attitude of defence. The officer commenced a vigorous assault, and after a sharp contest, in which several were killed, the robbers, intimidated by superior 299 numbers and the shouts of men and the baying of dogs, took to flight, each attempting to save himself in the best way he could. Upon this a strange scene presented itself, for the dogs, encouraged by their flight, pursued them with the utmost fury, running by their side, and seizing them by the legs or throat, which compelled the men to wheel round and engage them with their sabres. Whichever way they fled, they still found themselves surrounded at all points by dogs, and nets, and swords, from which they vainly endeavoured to extricate themselves. In this manner they continued to be gradually enclosed within a still narrower space, and their whole number being thus brought together, they again resolved to make a desperate stand. Though they fought with the strength of despairing men, it was still of no avail; and having no further place of refuge, they were all either killed or taken upon the spot. The survivors were hanged upon the nearest trees, without the least trial or any investigation into their crimes, while their bodies were left a prey to the wolves and vultures of the mountains.
Out of the whole number there were only about twenty who contrived to elude the vigilance of the wary and valiant officer and his men. These were some who, on hearing their first approach from a neighbouring wood, and alarmed by the sound of bugles and the clamour of the battle, concluding their comrades had fallen, fled as far as possible from their accustomed haunts. They at length drew up at an inn several miles distant, with the intention of there awaiting tidings of the result, having previously arrayed themselves in the rich dresses which had formerly belonged to more honourable personages. To give a greater air of probability to their new characters, a few of them had remained in their usual attire, the better to personate servants who were attending upon their masters. Their leader appeared as one of the servants, perfectly aware of the magnitude of the danger and quite on the alert. The gentlemen entered first, with a rolling and idle motion of their limbs, calling for rooms and whatever the house could afford of the best, while their servants waited humbly at a distance.
In the meanwhile the officer having despatched his sanguinary business in the wood, gathered up his nets and the spoils of victory, proposing to proceed in the same manner and enclose the adjacent thicket. In his progress, however, he encountered a shepherd, who informed him that he would only lose his labour by repeating the same operation, as he had just met a party of the banditti, dressed like gentlemen, coming out of the wood on their way to Naples. The officer, being resolved to ascertain the truth of this account, sent forward one of his spies to obtain information, following him at an easy pace. The man proceeded until he arrived at the very inn where the gentlemen had put up, and introducing himself as a stranger, he ordered dinner to be prepared. The gentlemen, however, wishing to be thought courteous, invited him to dine with them, and entering into conversation, when they found he was going on to Naples, inquired if he had lately heard anything new. “Nothing very new, signor,” replied the stranger, “except that as I came out of Rome, I happened 300 to meet the brave head of the police returning, and he told me that he had just made such complete havoc amongst the banditti, that he believed there was not one left alive.” Overjoyed on hearing this, the villains began to think themselves quite secure; for the officer, they believed, had now returned home, supposing they had all fallen into his hands.
After dinner the stranger got up, saying that he must proceed to Naples; but returning instantly to his employer, he informed him that he had found the robbers enjoying themselves at the inn. In a very short space of time the brave officer was also there; but just as he was about to enter, the leader of the robbers, standing behind his pretended master’s chair near the window, observed the concourse of people at hand, among whom he marked also the identical stranger who had just left them. He was on the point of acquainting his companions, when he reflected that all means of escape being cut off, he should only implicate himself in their fate in the tumult which would ensue. As a last effort to save himself, he therefore only observed to his master, “I tasted an excellent wine just now in the cellar, and I think, signor, it would suit your taste: I will step and see that the host plays you fair about it;” saying which, and carrying a huge dish before him, he somewhat promptly left the apartment. As he went downstairs he met the officer and his myrmidons coming up, who supposing him to be one of the servants of the house, inquired in what manner the strange gentlemen above were then employed. “They are still at table,” he answered, in a pert tone, “and I am just going to bring them some more wine.” “Well, go, you rogue,” returned the other, “and we will drink it.” “As you please for that, gentlemen,” answered the waiter, and hastened as quickly as possible into the vault, thence exploring his way out by a secret passage, until he found himself in a place of safety.
The officer had by this time seized and secured the party of gentlemen at table, and taking possession of their seats, ordered a fresh dinner, every moment expecting the excellent wine which the rogue of a waiter had promised to bring. At length, turning to the host, he desired to know what that waiter of his, whom they had met on the stairs, was so very long about. “No waiter of mine is gone for wine, signor; he belonged to the party of gentlemen whom you have just seized.” “Ah! can that be true?” cried the officer. “It is, it is!” cried the whole band, as if displeased that he was not to share the same fate. “He was our servant; that is, he was our captain, we mean. In that disguise he has imposed both upon you and upon us. For, seeing you at hand, as we have reason to believe, he pretended to go for wine, and left us, without saying a word, to fall into your hands, escaping from the fate which he saw prepared for his companions, and thus showing himself as prudent as we have been vain and foolish.”
Enraged at the idea of having been thus outwitted by the chief of the gang, whom he was in particular desirous of securing, the officer everywhere sought to discover his retreat, but in vain. He was at length compelled to return with his other prisoners to Rome, where 301 the unfortunate gentlemen immediately shared the fate of their companions.
The sole survivor of the gang, who by his coolness and penetration had saved himself, succeeded in secretly leaving the Papal dominions, and retired beyond the jurisdiction of the Church into the Florentine territories. He had there time to repent, and abandoning the wicked career upon which he had first entered, he became a very honest citizen, and an example of sobriety, industry, and charity to all his neighbours.