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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. 108-113.



[Translated by Thomas Roscoe*]

The admiration for successful trickery is nowhere better illustrated than in the following sixteenth-century tale. The ingenuity of the servant is indeed very diverting. His astuteness is said to have been imitated by certain Jesuits to gain possession of the estate of an Antoine-François Gauthiot living in Besançon in the latter half of the seventeenth century. But the impostor was not possessed of the valiant spirit of the servant in the story; in fact, he was weak enough to make a death-bed confession. This led to a protracted lawsuit, on the proceedings of which Jean François Regnard, the greatest comedy writer of France after Molière, based his famous play, The Universal Legatee.

THERE dwelt in Padua, not very long ago, a gentleman of the name of Scipione Sanguinaccio, whose extreme avarice, to which he had devoted a whole life of wretchedness, rendered him notorious throughout the city as one of the most penurious of its usurers. It had always been the height of his ambition to grow richer and richer, by the accumulation of interest upon interest, until he should have attained to an extreme old age. This being at length the case, he grew very infirm, and began to turn his thoughts, however reluctantly, to the propriety of making his last will and testament. By recent reflections on the subject, he had become so deeply sensible of his numberless offenses against Heaven, that, desirous of lessening the amount of these his manifold sins and transgressions, he determined to leave the bulk of his property for the endowment of monasteries and hospitals, to the no small injury of two sons, whose interests he believed to be very properly sacrificed in order to insure the safety of his own soul.

The young men, however, hearing of this disposition of his affairs, were by no means of their father’s opinion, lamenting to each other that he should have imbibed those 109 foolish fears and prejudices which had led to so disagreeable a result. The old gentleman, on his part, imagined that his sons were not duly sensible of the high importance which ought now to be attached to his eternal interests. Such became the anxiety of the young men on this head, that they agreed to consult some of their most intimate friends, entreating them to employ their influence with their father in order to obtain a more equitable adjustment of his affairs, and to save his family from being consigned to poverty and shame for the sake of others.

“Pray remind him,” they said, “that true charity begins at home, among our kindred and friends, and do not spare his conscience on the subject.”

But these arguments, so far from prevailing with their aged father, led him only to adhere still more pertinaciously to his own opinion; and had he lived much longer, he would infallibly have deprived them of the little already provided for them, being resolutely bent upon blotting out his transgressions, as far as money could cancel them, in which laudable intention he vowed he would die.

Now it so happened that immediately before his decease, this unjust disposition of his property came to the ears of one of his old stewards, who immediately hastened to condole with the sons on this melancholy occasion.

“Ah! my dear young masters!” he cried, “Good Messer Angelo and good Messer Alberto, I truly sympathize with you both. When I heard that my old master had been guilty of making so unreasonable a will, I cannot express the grief and concern which I felt for your sakes. Indeed I have thought of nothing else since I heard of it, and I think I have formed a plan which will set all to rights yet, if you will be guided by me. For his money shall go the way it ought to do, so help me God, whatever may happen to his soul; and I will tell you how we can contrive it. I think he cannot possibly live through the night, so that we must keep the house as quiet as we can, and close the doors against all impertinent intruders, who would only disturb him in his last moments. When your poor father 110 has breathed his last, we must carry his body decently and quietly into another room; which being done, out of mere regard for you, I will take his place on the sick-bed where he made his first wicked will. Now, before it becomes known that your dear father has departed, you must both come to my bedside weeping, and praying that God would please to restore your parent, and to remove his dangerous distemper, to the end that it may appear as if he were still alive. Then lose no time in sending early the next morning for the same attorney who was before employed, and I will make another will for you much more equitable and better to your liking.”

On hearing these consolatory words, the young men were not a little comforted, and expressed their gratitude for such wise and humane counsel.

“We always,” said the eldest, “believed you to be very kindly inclined towards us, and we know, my good Galeazzo, that your kindness is equaled by your prudence and discretion. Should the plan you propose turn out as advantageous for us as you seem to think, you may depend upon our lasting gratitude, and you shall certainly reap your share of the fruits of it.”

Much more conversation passed between them to the same effect, and not long after the old gentleman expired. His body was then, in execution of their plan, removed into another chamber, while the wily old steward soon after assumed his master’s place, the curtains being drawn close around him, and the sick man’s nightcap put upon his head. A dim taper was burning by his side, and everything was arranged in such a way as almost to bid defiance to detection.

The attorney and witnesses now arrived, when Galeazzo, with his head half enveloped in the bed-clothes, attempted to address the man of law in a feeble tone of voice:

“I have been thinking a great deal since yesterday, Messer Pietro, about many particulars in the late will you drew. And alas! I fear I was about to act very unjustly towards my poor boys, not having that inward reliance 111 upon Heaven which all Christians ought to have. But I thank God that I have been permitted to think better of it; and it does not appear to me that by depriving my own children of their lawful inheritance for the sake of others I can possibly recommend myself to the mercy of Heaven.

“Proceed, therefore, good Messer Pietro, while there is yet time. I will cancel my former hard and unnatural bequests. Let my poor boys have something to shield them from a pitiless world; let them inherit what I toiled to obtain for them. Indite it as my will that they succeed to the whole of my property, as well real as personal, chargeable only with the following legacy. I bequeath to my tried and faithful old servant Galeazzo, in return for his long and valued services, the sum of two thousand ducats, one-half of which shall be payable at Christmas, the other half on Easter Day.”

At these words the two sons, not in the least expecting such a stratagem on the part of their old friend, came forward somewhat hastily, saying, as they approached the bed:

“But, dear father, as we shall have pleasure in attending to this or any other little commissions which you may mention to us, say no more; you will exert yourself too much.”

“What is that you say?” inquired the patient, in an angry tone.

“Only,” replied they, “that we would wish you to dispose of your whole property as you judge best; but, dear father, we would just suggest that, however meritorious the services of Galeazzo may have been, so large a sum is perhaps beyond either his wishes or his deserts.”

“I cannot think so,” replied their false father, still in an offended tone; “I cannot think so, sons. He has been a faithful servant of mine for more than four-and-twenty years; I cannot do too much for him!”

“Still, dear father,” they repeated, “we think you are giving him too much.”

To which Galeazzo, quite out of patience, replied in great anger, “You had better take care what you are about, and 112 not provoke me too far, for if you do, I will get up, weak as I am, and give you reason to repent of your behaviour.”

Alarmed lest their false father should really put his threat into execution, the brothers remained silent, while the notary proceeded to state the sum at two thousand ducats; after which the will was regularly signed and sealed, and the witnesses were dismissed. The party being left together, the avaricious brothers could not conceal their dissatisfaction, and began to upbraid the cunning steward for having inserted his own name in the will.

“You have greatly deceived us,” they continued; “we could not have imagined that you would have been guilty of such a trick, and have turned the affair in this way to your own advantage, inserting your own name in the will just as if you had been one of our brothers. Why did you not rely on our promise that we would reward you handsomely, instead of assuming so much authority, and dictating to us as you did? But it is done, and there is no helping it now. We suppose you must have your money; but you have certainly not behaved well.”

Astonished at such ingratitude on the part of the brothers, Messer Galeazzo, turning very sharply round upon them, replied:

“Are not you ashamed, Messer Angelo and Messer Alberto, to address me in language like this? What might I have expected, then, had I trusted to your promises? You complain that I have inserted my own name, as if, instead of a servant, I had been your own brother; to which I reply, that I have treated you not only like a brother, but like a father. I have bestowed upon you a fortune of twelve thousand ducats, reserving only for myself the modest sum of two thousand. It is merely what I deserve in return for the infinite obligations I have now laid you under, without taking into consideration my long and faithful stewardship. After such usage I can no longer think of remaining in your service; and it is well that your kind father has so handsomely provided for me in his will, which you will be pleased to attend to at the appointed 113 time. There is one piece of advice, also, which I beg leave to offer to you, no less for your own sakes than for mine. Never let a single syllable transpire of what has passed between us in regard to your dear father’s will, and I assure you it will never be divulged by me.”

Compelled to promise payment at the stipulated time, the brothers with a very ill grace dismissed the steward, who took his leave of them, bowing very formally, and returning them many ironical thanks.

*  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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