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. 411-421.
* Prima Parte delle Novelle di Ascanio Mori da Ceno. Mantua, Francesco Osanna, 8vo. 1585.
His careful nephew, unacquainted with this last prescription, one morning went into his room to consult him on some affairs, and was surprised to find him buried under an enormous load of bed-clothes, just as he was beginning to promote the medicinal warmth. He had closed his eyes, and lay perfectly quiet, invoking the moisture to appear with all a patient’s anxiety and fervency of feeling, which cannot endure the least interference with the grand object he has in view. The careful nephew approached on tiptoe, fearful of rousing his good uncle too suddenly, and was concerned to behold him lying apparently in so piteous a plight. Anxious lest he had met with a relapse, 415 he began to accuse himself of not having been sufficiently careful in preventing him from resuming business too soon. The old gentleman at first laughed a little on hearing his over-scrupulous observations, then he became rather uneasy at his repeated inquiries and lamentations over him; and lastly, he was afraid that this untimely interruption might check the course of the fluids, without in the least benefiting the solids, respecting both of which he had lately become vary particular. In fact, he began to fear that the necessary perspiration would be stopped, which, next to the stopping of the firm, was the thing he most dreaded in the world. When his careful nephew, therefore, again began to hint his precautions that he should not enter too soon into the office, the patient said in a somewhat angry tone, “For God’s sake, get you gone! your lamentations make me quite sick; I tell you I am only taking a sweat.” “But I am sorry to think you have got a relapse; what can be the occasion of it? Do let me consult the doctor about it, for it were better to take it in time;” and so saying, he was hastening out of the room. No longer able to control his temper, and too impatient to explain, yet dreading to rise in a state if incipient perspiration, the old merchant raised his voce as loud as he dared, crying, “Don’t go to the doctor, I say, and a plague upon you! only go out of the room.” Upon this, the young man approaching nearer and marking his uncle’s rising colour, who at the same time bestowed the most abusive epithets upon him, begin to think he was a little touched in the head, and that there was the greater occasion for a sharp leech the more he asserted the contrary. As he stood in a thoughtful posture, with his eyes fixed on the inflamed countenance of his uncle, the calmness of his manner and his fixed resolution of calling a physician so incensed the latter that he suddenly burst into a violent rage, threatening not only to cut him off without a farthing, but to knock his brains out instantly if he ventured to provoke him more; for which purpose he would rise, though he was in a beautiful perspiration. These words now confirmed the young gentleman’s suspicions that something was wrong in his uncle’s upper regions, being quite unlike himself, and he began to lament his situation louder than ever, ending with prayers and ejaculations for a physician. The uncle upon this put his threats into execution, leaping suddenly from his bed, while Federigo, on the other hand, believing him to be seized with a delirious paroxysm, ran towards him to keep him down lest he should commit some horrible mischief. Escaping, however, from his hands, the enraged patient endeavoured to seize a large cudgel which he kept in the room, a design against which the young gentleman exerted himself to the utmost of his power. A sharp contest for the possession of the stick now took place, sometime inclining to one side, sometimes the other; though the youth, believing his uncle endowed with the supernatural strength of a lunatic, was frequently on the point of being overcome. His great object was to secure the patient before he succeeded in obtaining the cudgel and inflicting the severe castigation which he threatened; and gathering strength from his despair, he began to press Messer Maffeo very hard, who, engaging in his night-cap and gown, certainly fought at a great disadvantage. 416 His breath began to grow short and his strength to fail, and no longer able to utter a word, he fairly yielded to his adversary. The latter not venturing to let a madman loose, held him firmly down, pinioning his hands behind him and fixing his knees upon his stomach. When he had at length bound him hand and foot, the careful nephew again commenced his lamentations over him, regretting that so sensible a man should have run mad so suddenly. On this his uncle beginning to grin and show his teeth, he very calmly buried him under a heap of bed-clothes, and locking him up fast in the chamber, went to consult a physician. The doctor, being just on the point of visiting one of the young princes at the court, had only time to advise the careful nephew to apply a couple of sharp blisters upon his uncle’s shoulders, and he would endeavour to call upon him in the evening. He would then if necessary order him something of a still more caustic nature, and bleed the patient copiously. For there was nothing, he said, like meeting the evil in the beginning, and applying the remedies while the patient had strength to bear them. The anxious Federigo accordingly hastened to the surgeon’s house, and finding him, unluckily for his uncle, at home, he took him, armed with lancet and blisters, along with him. Proceeding with all haste, they soon arrived at the patient’s residence, the young man relating by the way the whole of his late engagement, as a clear proof of the patient’s lunacy. The ancient housekeeper met them at the door, crossing herself devoutly and shedding tears as she repeated further instances of the insanity of her poor master, who had never ceased to bite and kick and roar most outrageously since his nephew had left the house.
And indeed well he might, for instead of being allowed to rise and attend to business as usual, he found himself violently provoked, assaulted, bound down like a felon, and locked up as in a cage, and all by his prudent, careful nephew. Such a case was enough to have driven Solomon himself out of his wits, to say nothing of a man of business; and by the time his persecutors approached the chamber, the violence of his proceedings certainly afforded strong presumptive evidence against him. When they appeared in his presence, however, he grew more furious than before. “What, in Heaven’s name, must we do?” cried his nephew. “Let us stay till he has worn himself out, and the paroxysm is somewhat abated; we can then apply our caustics,” said the barbarous leech, “without fear of risk.” “No, I think we had better begin now,” replied the careful nephew, “let us lose no time, for he will do himself some injury if we permit him to go on thus. Follow me, and do not be afraid, for I think, I shall manage him better this time,” continued our young hero with the utmost coolness; “and when once I have pinioned down his arms, you may seize him by the legs.” “But he is mad, quite mad,” cried the surgeon. “Let him alone, I say! when the frenzy subsides you will find he will go to sleep, and we can seize him then.” Such, in fact, was shortly the case, for, wearied with his violent efforts and exertions, the poor man soon after they retired threw himself exhausted upon his couch, and fell into a sound sleep. But he was not long permitted to enjoy it; for the wily leech, then addressing his nephew, said, “Now 417 is the time: he is in a deep slumber, and what we have to do let us do quickly.” “Softly, softly,” said the careful Federigo as he laid hands upon the poor merchant; “there, I have him now! bring the blisters and a basin for the blood before he is well awake.” “Murder! help, help! for Heaven’s sake, help!” cried the patient, suddenly awakening and beholding the fell surgeon approaching with the lance and basin in hand; but vain were his cries; vain all his efforts to extricate himself from his impending fate. The more he struggled the more did Federigo think it his duty to use prompt remedies, and Messer Maffeo shortly lay as helpless as a new-born child. The surgeon, however, in securing his legs had already received several severe contusions in the face; for which he was proceeding to take ample revenge in the blood of his enemy. At first, indeed, he thought of running away, but the young man encouraged him to do his duty, while the patient, on his side, exhibited symptoms of extreme rage and terror at his approach. The phlebotomist again advanced, and again drew back, like a spider that has got a wasp in his toils, holding his trenchant blade in his hand; nor was it until he was offered a double fee that he flew at him, and, in spite of all his shrieks and struggles, fixed a deadly blister upon either shoulder. He next attempted to draw blood, the careful nephew holding the arm while the surgeon with he same caution proceeded to pierce the vein; and having accomplished this, and applied some hot cataplasms to the soles of his feet, the man of blood departed. The patient now lay exposed to the rising pangs of the caustics, bound hand and foot. Growing hotter and hotter, they at length became so intolerable that he declared he felt them eating his flesh away and drinking his blood; that gout and colic were a mere jest to them; and that he would give up the whole of the business and all he was possessed of in the world if his cruel nephew would consent to release him. The latter, however, only thought it a further sign of madness, and proposed to adopt still stronger applications, saying to the servant in the presence of the wretched patient, “Run, quick, as far as the surgeon’s;’ bring a large glister for the head, and I will shave him myself.” Bitterly now did the poor merchant rue the hour when he admitted his careful nephew into his house, nor was it until he found all threats and imprecations avail, and after the blisters had done their work, that he succeeded by dint of quiet reason and argument in convincing the hopeful youth of the real state of the case, and that he had required nothing beyond a gentle sudorific.
Without staying, therefore, until he felt himself perfectly restored, for he still had a few twinges of the gout, he first lined his purse well with ducats, and then set out towards the seat of justice, determined to try whether they would have any efficacy in removing the stain which would otherwise infallibly attach to the family escutcheon. When he arrived at the place, he began by the usual methods of prayer and petition to beg the lives of his unlucky young relatives, a process which proved perfectly fruitless, inasmuch as the Duke’s love of justice was in exact proportion to his dislike of villains and his encouragement of honest men. Besides, he had put his hand to their sentence, and seemed resolved for once, right or wrong, that they should be shorter by the heads which had devised so many ingenious plans of mischief. Tears, and moans, and groans were all richly lavished by the old man to no sort of purpose, until he had very nearly reached the day of execution before he could prevail upon himself to change his measures and resort to the more solid arguments he had brought in his purse. The Duke had already been so much annoyed by him, that he always rode away on his approach; yet wherever he happened to stop or turn, the old man was sure to intercept, to meet, or to attack him in his rear. Wearied at length with his importunities, the Duke summoned his train and rode away to hunt at Goito, not far from Mantua, where he understood that Duke Frederic II. was then engaged in the same sport. He was received by him very graciously, and proved a very agreeable addition to the party, who indulged themselves in every kind of pleasure they could imagine; until one day, as they were issuing forth, the countenance of the wearisome old man again presented itself, and he began exactly in the same tone with his petition where he had before left off. Yes, he stood there on his gouty feet, but how he got there nobody could tell, except the poor steed, which in his haste he had ridden to death by the way. So his Excellency was here compelled to hold a fresh colloquy, which was lengthened by some of the courtiers, with whose easy consciences the bribes of the cunning old Cremonese had already been busy. Such was the effect, indeed, that they now began to support the old gentleman in his pretensions, observing that it was a sad pity, and then, as the Duke took it easily, that it was a horrible piece of injustice that two such fine young fellows should be hanged. In proportion as the good uncle plied them with ducats, they became more and more clamorous for mercy, insisting, among other things, that the two rogues had served like valiant soldiers in the Duke’s army and deserved a better fate. For they knew that this would be a powerful 419 plea with him; and such were, in short, the lies and impostures of all kinds which they succeeded in palming upon their noble master, that he really began to think the prisoners were about to be very ill used, though they ought to have been executed long ago. They, moreover, lauded the Duke for his great humanity, and, as such sycophants are apt to do, they so completely won his ear by their vile flatteries as to convince him that it would be one of the most pious acts in the world to revoke the sentence against two of the most accomplished villains in his dominions. Indeed, he was glad to be able on any terms to escape the sight of the old man and the worrying entreaties of his courtiers. The petitioner’s ducats being well-nigh exhausted, there was no time to be lost; for he knew that if he did not carry his nephews’ pardon in his pocket before they were quite gone, the promises made would be void and he should have the whole to pay over again. With his last bribe, therefore, he prevailed upon a wily courtier to procure an order, signed by the Duke’s hand, to the judge of the district, remitting the punishment for the sake of a slight fine, and having received the ducal seal, it was delivered to the troublesome old man. By this time he was become nearly weary of his undertaking, and almost regretted, as he parted with his last douceur, that he had not left his hopeful nephews to their fate. In fact, such was his chagrin that he was seized with an acute fever only the very day before the time appointed for their execution, while their pardon still remained in his pocket. What was now to be done? It was impossible he could reach the seat of justice himself, and in whom could he confide so precious a charge? On consulting the wily courtier, a messenger was pointed out to him, one of the most celebrated for swiftness of foot and secrecy of despatch among all the scouts at court. He was hired, therefore, at a moment’s warning, while the sole consolation of the good uncle was the hope of living long enough to behold once more the faces of his wretched nephews, and of bestowing upon them a little dying advice.
Having given him, therefore, the most particular directions to lose no time upon the road, and even paid a sum in advance, the troublesome old gentleman awaited with some anxiety the news of his trusty messenger’s return. He was to be at the place early the next morning, and to deliver the letter into the judge’s own hands, after which he was to receive a further reward. Fired at this last idea, and eager to maintain his character as the most swift-footed Mercury at court, he posted away without stopping until he reached Castel Goffredo, where, taking a little repose, he proceeded early to the city gate, observing to the captain that he was on the Duke’s business and must have his pass. Proceeding accordingly, he was just entering the great square near the judge’s house when he was met by an immense concourse of people, in the midst of whom were the two identical prisoners heavily chained, just going to the place of execution. How should the messenger, however, know this? He believed he was in very good time, and being quite unacquainted with the particular nature of the business, he determined to stop and watch the whole proceeding. Falling into the crowd, he approached the scaffold, saw them mount, 420 and witnessed them take their final leave of the world; after which he proceeded very leisurely with their pardon in his pocket to the house of the judge. He congratulated himself by the way on the expeditious manner in which he had fulfilled the old man’s commands, and presented himself with no little importance at the mansion of justice, expecting to receive a further fee, with many commendations for his celerity and despatch.
On opening the letter and finding the nature of its contents, the judge uttered an exclamation of surprise, watching the messenger attentively, and questioning him very narrowly as to the occasion of his delay. “Dolt, idiot, blunderhead!” he exclaimed, “when did you set out from Goito?” “One hour before midnight; all in the dark, please your lordship; that is, I got my orders about that time, and set off at two.” “You did, did you?” replied the other. “You are enough to make Solomon himself blaspheme! Where did you stop, you most egregious fool?” “Stop! stop! I ran every mile of the way, please your lordship; and never stopped at all, except to see two robbers executed this morning, and I knew I could afford time for that.” “Ah! villain, idle villain!” returned the judge; “do you know you have been the death of both of them, and it were well if you could lose your head in their place;” and he proceeded too upbraid him in no very gentle terms, being really concerned at so untoward an accident, and, moreover, being, for a judge, very humanely inclined. In this last point, indeed, he was very unlike the generality of his learned brethren, who upon passing sentence before dinner or in a bad humour are very apt to make light of persons’ lives. Our swift-footed Mercury now found himself in a strange dilemma; for in place of being praised, as on former occasions, for his speed and alacrity, he only gained hard words, his lordship threatening to make a severe example of him. His pride, however, was so much hurt in being reproached as an idle, lounging, slovenly sluggard, unworthy of the Duke’s confidence, or indeed of anything but a halter, that he could no longer restrain his indignation. “My lord,” he replied, “your lordship ought to speak within some bounds, and recollect that you are speaking to one of the best, nay, the very best and swiftest foot-courier in the Duke’s service. Consider, I set out at midnight, and I got here before daybreak this morning, stopping only, as I tell you, to see those two villains kicking their heels in the air; and surely I had a right to have some little diversion after running so many leagues so very fast. The old gentleman ought to have told me the particular business I was engaged for; as it is, you see it is not my fault.” “It is your fault and I will make an example of you for it, sir: I will teach you a little more humanity than to take a pleasure and lose your time in beholding tragedies of this kind.” “Oh, Lord, Lord!” cried the poor fellow, falling at the judge’s feet, “forgive me this time, and I will never stop as long as I have breath again. Oh, oh! I wish I had only known I was to save the poor, dear, innocent creatures’ lives; I would have been here before daybreak; I swear by my legs, I would!” “Know! you rogue,” echoed the judge, “did not you know it was a matter of life and death?” “No, my lord; nobody told me anything about that,” cried
the distressed courier. “Why, that something alters the aspect of the case, to be sure,” said the judge; “it will turn out to be the old gentleman’s fault, I believe, after all.” “And he will most likely be dead before I get back,” cried the courier; “so that there will be no need to tell him at all.” “Aye, aye! you will finish him and all his relations, I daresay,” said the judge; “get away with you, rogue, and do not stop to see anybody hanged by the way; but it is all perhaps for the best; it is all in the hands of the Lord.” And so in truth it appeared to be, inasmuch as neither of these devoted wretches were in the least deserving of pardon, and justly suffered the penalty of their manifold sins and offences. Of this his lordship took care to send a full account to the Duke, regretting, nevertheless, that for once it had not been in his power to comply with his Excellency’s commands, which he should have done had they been arch-fiends of mischief instead of common felons, by pardoning them as he had wished. “The whole blame of the affair,” he said, “attached to the old uncle, who ought not to have intrusted so important a commission to the hands of an ignorant messenger, who instead of performing it stopped by the way to see his nephews hanged.”