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From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 329-334.



[Translated by Thomas Roscoe*]

It is said that when Shakspere’s tragedy Othello, in which for English audiences Iago is the deepest and blackest villain in drama, is played in Italy, this same Iago becomes the hero. So great is the Italian’s admiration for trickery and intrigue. The Italian counterpart of another of Shakspere’s great tragedies, King Lear, is furnished by the following tale. Instead of being driven mad by ingratitude, the Italian father by a wily ruse regains his power over the unfilial sons and actually enjoys the situation.

THERE resided not very long ago in Pavia one Messer Antonio de’ Torelli, a fine old gentleman, who is still affectionately remembered by several of the more aged citizens of the place. When he began to feel himself gradually declining, some time before the termination of his mortal career, he resolved, out of regard to his three sons, whom he had already settled advantageously in life, to adjust his affairs for the last time, and distribute his property amongst them. Summoning them for this purpose to his presence, he said:

“You see, my dear boys, I am beginning to grow old; am I not? At least I cannot hope to survive many years; and it will be a consolation no less to you than to myself, while I am here, to put your affairs into a little better train. I intend to give you equal shares, inasmuch as you are entitled to them, and to do this now instead of putting it off from day to day until the very last moment.”

So he forthwith proceeded to give away both houses and lands, besides all his personal property, in equal shares to his children, not sparing even the ready money in his bureau, consisting of six thousand ducats, which he now divided amongst his sons, saying:

“You will take notice, boys, that it is nothing but my affection for you, together with my old age, which begins 330 to affect my judgment, that leads me to settle these matters at present. For I should be sorry to be like those avaricious old fathers who are so jealous of their authority, that the longer they live the more they would have, ambitious of domineering and managing everything their own way till the very last. They retain their hold upon the things of this world with as tenacious a grasp as if they really never intended to relax it, and instead of giving themselves any repose, they labor still harder to accumulate treasures which they can never enjoy. Instead of imitating so foolish an example, I will relinquish my property and my cares with a good grace, and I will continue to live joyously among you, as long as heaven shall permit, feeling assured that you will all take pleasure in supplying me with more than I shall ever require.”

His sons vied with each other in expressing their gratitude for his paternal goodness, declaring that they should merely consider themselves in the place of his stewards, ever prepared to attend to his minutest wishes in every respect. Yet it so turned out, that in a very few months after the good old gentleman had parted with his property, their demeanor towards him began to alter. And this he shortly perceived when he began to take up his residence first with one and then with another, believing that he could not fail to enjoy himself exceedingly. After continuing tolerably comfortable with them for a little while, he began to be aware that in proportion as he lengthened his visits they seemed to become less agreeable.

This he more particularly noticed was the opinion of his three daughters-in-law, some of whom were not unfrequently heard to exclaim, “Look! look! here is that vexatious old man again! come to dine with us, too, at such an inconvenient hour!” While others would say: “There is really no pleasing him; the soup is always seasoned either too high or too low; indeed he is getting very old and very odd.” So frequent and so loud did these murmurs at length become that he could not avoid overhearing them; and even the servants soon convinced him of the error he had committed 331 in enriching his children during his lifetime at his own expense.

Not very well pleased at having made this discovery, he determined to apply, in order to relieve his anxiety, to Angelo Beccaria, one of his oldest friends, to whom in a doleful voice, he said:

“You are aware, my dear friend, that about six months ago I got a foolish notion into my head of making my will, which I still more foolishly executed in favor of my sons. Now, you would not believe, my dear Angelo, in what an ungrateful, in what a cruel way, they, and especially their wives, have since treated me. I thought that they would be a thousand times kinder to me than ever, after leaving them all I was worth during my lifetime, instead of making them wait till I was fairly gone. I imagined that they would all be attentive and obliging to me, and, would you believe it, it has turned out just the contrary. I wish, from my very soul, that I had retained my property, for my children, and especially their wives, look as if they could hardly bear the sight of me. Now, I would not breathe a word of this to any one living but yourself. You were always kind to me, and it is a great relief to my feelings to have someone, at least, in whom to confide.”

His friend Angelo endeavored to console him, saying that he was extremely sorry to hear of such unfilial conduct on the part of his children, when they ought rather to have shown him increased tenderness and respect, after bestowing the whole of his fortune on them and their families. He then paused, as if considering what could possibly be done. After ruminating for some time:

“I have it! I have it! my dear Antonio,” he cried. “If you will follow my advice, you may be a happy man yet. Now, listen! Suppose I were to lend you two thousand ducats, which you shall take home with you immediately, and return them to me in a few days. You may show them in the meanwhile to your sons, to convince them that they are in your possession, stating that you mean to leave them to whomsoever you may judge proper. Their avarice will 332 so far weigh with them as to induce them to show you that attention and dutiful behavior which all your kindness has failed to produce.”

Accepting the proposal with his warmest thanks, Messer Antonio instantly received from his friend’s hands the two thousand ducats, and having counted and given his note for them, he carried them joyfully along with him home.

In pursuance of his friend’s advice, he then sent for Galeazzo, his eldest son, to whom he said:

“You are aware, my son, that though I still may have many years to live, I not long since made over the greatest part of my property to you and your brothers; yet I did not dispose of the whole, for that would have been a foolish thing indeed; though I only reserved a few thousands, not to leave myself quite destitute, as you may here behold.”

He then exhibited his friend’s gold, giving his eldest son at the same time to understand that, should all continue pleasant between them, he intended to add them to the sum he had before bestowed upon him.

Dismissing Galeazzo, he then went through the same scene with his two brothers, making the same promises to each. Nor was it long before he reaped the benefit of this happy expedient, as he had the pleasure of observing a great change for the better in the conduct of his children. On returning the money to his friend Angelo, he again expressed his gratitude for the ingenious suggestion, observing that he had now nothing further to complain of, and that he was a very happy father, inasmuch as his sons already began to vie with each other in their kindness and attentions to him.

Not very long after, the old gentleman feeling himself beginning to decline apace, experienced the advantage of his good friend’s advice; for no children could be more attentive to the least wants and wishes of a parent. However much pressed, he still delayed to make his final will; and not satisfied with this, he further resolved to reproach his children for their late conduct by another ingenious device. In the very same chest which had contained the 333 six thousand ducats he deposited a heap of sand, on the surface of which he laid an oaken staff, with an inscription, in very plain terms, to the following purport:

“I will and bequeath this cudgel to knock any old fool upon the head who gives away his own property during his lifetime.”


In a few days afterwards, this kind old father breathed his last, when his sons severally hastened to inspect the strong box which he had previously shown to each; and so eager and simultaneous were they in their motions that they all three met together on the spot, where they stood gazing for some time wistfully at each other. The eldest first broke silence, saying:

“It is now several months ago since my father presented me with a bag of gold, containing, as he said, two thousand ducats, which he deposited here for me. I doubt not they are in this box, and I am now come here to claim them.”

At these words, his brothers, Antonio and Julio, each exclaimed:

“It may be very true, Galeazzo, but he promised exactly the same sum to me.”

Each asked the others for the key, and maintaining the truth of their several assertions, they entered into a pretty sharp dispute. Weary at length of controversy, they became desirous of accommodating matters, and agreed, like good brothers, to share all the contents of the chest amongst them. Instantly sending for a locksmith, they ordered it to be broken open in their presence, when, instead of their bags of gold, they beheld it filled with sand, and the cudgel with the ingenious device upon the top of it.

Overwhelmed with shame and vexation, they in vain tried to laugh the matter off and appear amused with this humorous sort of retaliation. No sooner did Messer Angelo hear of his old friend’s improvement upon their original contrivance, than being highly entertained with it, he everywhere made it a source of general amusement among his acquaintance, frequently observing:


“We foolish old fellows, you see, must take care of ourselves.”

And indeed it too often happens that the sole reward we reap from the unremitted toil and exertions of a whole life spent in enriching our posterity is disobedience and ingratitude even while we are alive. We may well imagine, then, with how little ceremony they are inclined to treat our memories when we are gone.

*  Elf.Ed. — Thomas Roscoe is not credited as the translator, but this story is included in his book, The Italian Novelists, also here on Elfinspell. In this series, the spelling is Americanized and there are minor changes in punctuation and format, mostly more paragraphs than in Roscoe’s translation. To see the original version go HERE.

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