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, c. 1824]; pp. 442-448.
“It is true, replied the viceroy, “and since we are assembled here for the purpose of amusing ourselves, let us in turn consider which of these professions ought to be esteemed the most effectual in the promotion of property, of honour, and of life. And we would first have the opinion of the Duke of Citta Penna; then that of Atri; thirdly, of Amalfi; and last, but not least of all, that of our friend Somma. As supreme umpire in this matter, let us elect our Prince Bisignan; he shall decide which of us judges best at to the utility of their respective callings. And in regard to the mischief they produce in the world, and their respective pre-eminence in evil, I should like the good Prince of Salerno to put us right. And understand, friends, there must be no appeal from, and no sort of contradiction to, this supreme jurisdiction of mine.” “It is well!” exclaimed the Duke of Citta Penna, “and as your Highness has first requested my humble opinion on this high and important subject, I shall express myself frankly, without wishing to be understood to make particular allusion to any member of these said professions, and gladly referring the errors I may fall into to the wisdom of such of you as will rectify them.” “That is well said,” interrupted the viceroy, “the question is quite general; we have nothing to do with individuals; they need not be afraid of us, so proceed cheerily with the question!” “I say, then,” pursued the Duke, “that keeping the lucidus ordo of our argument in view, I mean first to put our lawyer to the bar, as he first made his appearance on the tapis. The rest of you may deal with his successors as you please; but I am determined to have a fling at him. For he is, to say the least of him, a two-edged sword, which can cut very sharply both ways; so much so, that not all the governors, merchants, or physicians in the world are to be in any way compared to him. Behold him pouring forth a tide of learned eloquence in defence of the life, the property, and the honour of some rogue whom he brings off victorious. What is so rascally? Had it not been for him the villain would have got his deserts. And let me add, that if the learned gentleman at once applies his ignorance, of which the world, and especially the world of lawyers, is very full, and his knowledge united, in doing mischief, how great is that mischief, no less to his client than to others, whose very lives it may concern, and whose property or honour are most frequently at stake; while the guilty themselves are often falsely convicted, either through their counsel’s ignorance or their wilful consent, insomuch that knowledge itself in the hands of such wretches as these may be compared to a knife in the hands of a madman. In fact, they will often restore the stolen 445 bacon, as it is said, into the kitchen of the thief, if he possess the dexterity to treat them to a slice, while the poor owner walks empty-handed away.”
The Duke of Citta Penna here checking himself, he of Atri next took up the theme, proposing to deal as unceremoniously with the doctor of physic as his precursor had done with the man of law. “It is fit,” he continued, “that we deal pretty roundly with a man who mostly prescribes doses of three several qualities to a poor sick wretch at a venture, trusting that so many opposite poisons may probably cancel each other without destroying the patient along with them. It is at best a perilous business, in which so many materials and so many false assurances to help them down are to be swallowed. And for this reason physicians are in many places not to be met with; none, for instance, being found in the Isle of Giappone; and they were banished, in its ancient and best days, from the city of Rome. ‘Physician, cure thyself,’ is in everybody’s mouth while they are well and in possession of their judgment; but as the latter declines with their health, they then send for him. ‘Do you not perceive, O citizens,’ cried a wise Roman, ‘that it is for conferring upon us the benefit of death that they require payment?’ Our physician, moreover, mostly gives proof of skill in redeeming some vile felon from the jaws of Cerberus, saving, probably, his life and property, both forfeited to the laws, and by this process, against his own confession, he strives to justify his errors by declaring such a wretch worthy of absolution. But though his prescriptions often agree excellently well with rogues, they have quite a different effect upon honest men; and as many of us as henceforward allow ourselves to be carried off, either by ignorance or stratagem — why, I say it is our own fault!”
As he thus concluded, the Duke of Amalfi next prepared, with a cheerful countenance, to handle the merits of the commander, who, he observed, “has a very serious charge confided to him. In the field or in the garrison the lives of thousands are intrusted to his hands, their wealth, their honour, their all, depend upon the skill and probity with which he executes his task. But when he once begins to peculate, to declare a truce with his fidelity and honour, and to treat or to fight on his own bottom, as an author somewhere observes, he is very far from being an honest man. Neither friend nor foe can hold his promise good, though he often swears on the faith of a loyal soldier; and this must be sufficient without other instances to signify my opinion, whether you judge it right or wrong.”
The Duke of Somma, being the fourth, had now to round off the period of their discourse, which he accomplished in a very polished and complete style. He declared “that the good and trustworthy merchant was, after all, the surest means of conferring life, honour, and riches upon those who showed themselves desirous, as most men were, of acquiring and adding to their worldly state and reputation, as he supplied them upon credit with materials of every description on which to build their own fortunes, and, when his bills became due, also to add to his. For the truth is, that ready money cannot always be paid down in hard coin, there being, according to an old saying, ‘less honesty, sense, and money in the world than people in general 446 imagine.’ But when the trader or the usurer, impelled by the wicked instigation of mammon and the devil, would by their accursed devices vie with each other in obtaining the crown of unrighteousness, made of gold, they are not at all inferior to the lawyer, the physician, or the commander, in the art of depriving people of their life, their reputation, or their property. There are too many instances occurring every day, more especially among a great trading people, who boast of the superior skill and valour of their mariners, of merchants announcing their failure to the world for the mere purpose of appropriating the property of others, committing fraudulent acts of bankruptcy, and not unfrequently absconding with the money of their employers in their pockets. It is an old Spanish saying, “Mercante mal arrivato carta viexa va buscando.’ This false trader (I take it), returns to his old trade; till having at length forfeited his reputation with his honesty, poverty follows in their place. Now this same poverty being a sort of foot-cloth for all the world to rub their feet upon, soon becomes so strong and unwholesome, that though it were salted with all the virtues of the earth, it would infallibly smell; insomuch that its very professors, a numerous class, in order to avoid its influence, scruple not to commit the most unjust actions at the risk of ending their days upon a scaffold. At last, when they find there is really no other means of getting rid of a nuisance, situated not only very near, but actually within their dwellings, they prefer rather to leave their earthly tabernacles altogether than bear its daily inconvenience, and thus boldly risk a final adventure upon the sea of eternity. And this is the last argument I can think of to establish my position, that there is not a greater rascal on the face of the earth than a fraudulent merchant, such an one as our good viceroy has probably now in his possession among his other living curiosities.”
The treatment of this villanous subject, and the able exposition of its enormities by our ducal orators, were greatly applauded by the rest of the company; yet the viceroy himself was perhaps the loudest in their praise. Turning towards the Prince of Bisignan, “To your Highness,” he continued, “I believe it next belongs to give final judgment in this case, from which there must be no appeal, declaring which of the professional parties under consideration is either the most useful or the most prejudicial to the world. And let their merits, in God’s name, come first, for we have heard sufficient of their opposite qualities, I imagine, to serve us for some time.” The Prince, then, with all due form and ceremony, of which he was an excellent master, commenced his magisterial discourse. “Too grave and weighty, I fear, is the burden you have imposed upon my poor shoulders, though I shall endeavour to bear up under it as stoutly as I can. And the better to observe your injunctions, I shall here beg to introduce the famous story, so beautifully told by Boccaccio, applied to one who, like me, had a very important matter in hand.
“The father of a family once happened to be in possession of a certain extraordinary ring, which being left by will, had the power of conferring his whole property on whichever of his sons had the good fortune to wear it after his death, to the exclusion of the rest of his children. In this way it was handed down through several generations, 447 until it fell to the lot of one who had three sons, all of whom were acquainted with its excellent properties. Being perpetually teased by each of them for the succession, the old gentleman, to avoid their further importunities, sent for a celebrated goldsmith, whom he commissioned to make two more so exactly similar that it became impossible to detect the counterfeit. He then severally presented each son with one of them, observing that if he were wise, and wished to lead a quiet life, he would take care to say nothing about it to his brothers, but that after he was gone he might act as he thought proper. Then very conveniently falling sick, as each of them imagined, not long after the presentation of the gift, the old man took leave of the world. The quarrel he had predicted, and which he had contrived to keep at a distance during his lifetime, now burst forth between the sons, each contending that he was the sole heir, and producing the ring as a testimonial of his claims. Great was their astonishment, and great was likewise the perplexity of the umpire chosen on the occasion to adjust the clashing interests of the claimants; the similarity of the rings would now have puzzled the goldsmith himself; insomuch, that after they were well wearied of the controversy they consented to divide the property into three equal parts. And thus would I do in the very doubtful matter you have proposed to me, for all these professions are so exceedingly useful, that I do not suppose the wisdom of a Solomon could pretend to solve the difficulty, as to which, by its intrinsic excellence, is best entitled to the gratitude of the world;” and here he concluded his remarks.
“You have spoken, Prince,” exclaimed the viceroy, “in a very satisfactory, and I think a very happy manner. And now let the Prince of Salerno please to settle the rest; for if we may be allowed to infer a wise sentence from the singular prudence and sagacity with which he has conducted all his affairs, we shall not be left in want of one now.” “Heaven grant you may not!” returned the Prince; “were the premises true the conclusion might be so likewise, though I shall not take any particular trouble to disclaim the character you have given me at the expense of stultifying myself, aware as I am of greater imperfections that those which my friend Bisignan has attributed to himself. And to avoid, if possible, becoming tedious, I shall follow his example by repeating a story I recollect to have heard from an old countryman of mine, who having frequent business in Norcia, received it from the lips of one of his relations.
“There was a certain Annibal Fini da Urbino, no less distinguished by his capacity in civil than in military affairs, of which, being a liberal-minded man, he had nearly the sole adjustment in Norcia. Finding himself one day less pressed with business than usual, he entered into conversation with several citizens, as he stood in the porch-way of the justice-hall, regarding the conduct of the magistrates and governors of Spoleto. Some praised and some blamed them for the same or opposite qualities; one was too avaricious, another inhuman, and they were all in turn very severely handled in proportion to that love of scandal which is so universally encouraged in the world.
“Our friend Annibal, flattering himself that his known liberality and 448 love of justice had acquired for him the reputation of the most upright judge of Norcia, imagined he should steer clear of the sweeping censure pronounced against the rest of the magistrates, and thus accosted a countryman as he went by: ‘Martin, my good fellow, tell me, for the sake of this pretty ducat, which of the magistrates, think you, that has just left the court, has the best character among the people?’ Now Martin, who, like most of his countrymen, was at once both as awkward and as cunning as a bear, directly replied with the utmost freedom and readiness, but without anything of the graceful or decorous so much insisted upon by the prince of orators: ‘I shall answer you, good Mr. Podesta, as a certain neighbour did a customer who put a very improper kind of question to him. My neighbour happened to be in possession of four beautiful wolf’s whelps, one of which a villager had a notion of making his own, and with this view he began to haggle with him for the price, saying, “May I rely upon your pointing out to me which is the best, for I do not like to trust entirely to my own judgment, though I have a shrewd notion which is the best?” Now the peasant, who well knew the savage disposition of such animals to be very much upon a par, only answered with a grin: “Thrust your hand into the pannier, my friend, and please yourself, for they are all of the same kidney.” ’
“With this he slipped the ducat into his pocket and rode grinning away, leaving the magistrate to digest the spleen and venom of the reply as well as he could. Pretending that he had got business to despatch elsewhere, he turned directly away, and soon afterwards re-entered the hall.
“Now, I shall here presume to make a second application of the good rustic’s answer to the very important business before us; and I think it may enable us to solve the difficulty regarding the four professional gentlemen at present in the custody of our excellent viceroy, and who, I take it, are pretty much of the same kidney. So thrust your hand into the pannier,” he continued to the viceroy, “and take whichever you like to hang first; for they are all of them such complete proficients in their trade, that not one of them, I am convinced, would yield to the other either in his desire or his capacity of doing evil. It is in vain for us to attempt to discover which is the worst, as it is altogether a most diabolical affair on the part of each. I fancy the father of lies alone would be enabled to inform us satisfactorily of this truth.” There was a universal burst of laughter and applause at the close of this speech: their mirth was rapturous and overflowing; nor was their admiration less of the happy manner in which the Duke had extricated himself from the difficulty imposed upon him.
The viceroy then finally addressed the company, observing that each of the guests was now at liberty to entertain what opinion he pleased; for that this was, after all, the only plan he knew for arriving at the truth. Having said this, he proceeded to close the proceedings; and not long afterwards, with the most exact observance of all due forms and ceremonies strictly enforced at the court, the guests separated for the evening, adjourning to repose their wearied limbs from the toils of the banquet, no less than from those of state, of a still more grave and irksome nature than the former.