Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome | Annotated Tale

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Dead Man’s Letter, The


THERE was a rich man, I cannot tell you how rich he was, who died and left all his great fortune to his son, palaces and houses, and farms and vineyards. The son entered into possession of all, and became a great man; but he never thought of having a mass said for the soul of his father, from whom he had received all.

               There was also, about the same time, a poor man, who had hardly enough to keep body and soul together, and he went into a church to pray that he might have wherewithal to feed his children. So poor was he, that he said within himself, 'None poorer than I can there be.' As he said that, his eye lighted on the box where alms were gathered, that masses might be offered for the souls in Purgatory. 'Yes,' he said, then, 'these are poorer than I,' and he felt in his pocket for his single baiocco, and he put it in the alms box for the holy souls. [2]

               As he came out, he saw a painone [3] standing before the door, as if in waiting for him; but as he was well-dressed, and looked rich, the poor man knew he could have no acquaintance with him, and would have passed on.

               'You have done me so much good, and now you don't speak to me,' said the stranger.

               'When did I thee much good?' said the poor man bewildered.

               'Even now,' said the stranger; for in reality he was no painone, but one of the holy souls who had taken that form, and he alluded to the poor man's last coin, of which he had deprived himself in charity.

               'I cannot think to what your Excellency [4] alludes,' replied the poor man.

               'Nevertheless it is true,' returned the painone; 'and now I will ask you to do me another favour. Will you take this letter to such and such a palace?' and he gave him the exact address. 'When you get there, you must insist on giving it into the hands of the master of the house himself. Never mind how many times you are refused, do not go away till you have given it to the master himself.'

               'Never fear, your Excellency,' answered the poor man, 'I'll deliver it right.'

               When he reached the palace, it was just as the painone had seemed to expect it would be. First the porter came forward with his cocked hat and his gilt knobbed stick, with the coloured cord twisted over it all the way down, and asked him whither he was going.

               'To Count so-and-so,' answered the poor man.

               'All right! give it here,' said the splendid porter.

               'By no means, my orders were to consign it to the count himself.'

               'Go in and try,' answered the porter. 'But you may as well save yourself the stairs; they won't let such as you in to the count.'

               'I must follow orders,' said the poor man, and passed on.

               At the door of the apartment a liveried servant came to open.

               'What do you want up here? if you have brought anything, why didn't you leave it with the porter?'

               'Because my orders are to give this letter into the count's own hands,' answered the poor man.

               'A likely matter I shall call the "Signor Conte" out, and to such as you! Give here, and don't talk nonsense.'

               'No! into the count's own hands must I give it.'

               'Don't be afraid; I've lived here these thirty years, and no message for the "Signor Conte" ever went wrong that passed through my hands. Yours isn't more precious than the rest, I suppose.'

               'I know nothing about that, but I must follow orders.'

               'And so must I, and I know my place too well to call out the "Signor Conte" to the like of you.'

               The altercation brought out the valet.

               'This fellow expects the "Signor Conte" to come to the door to take in his letters himself,' said the lackey, laughing disdainfully. 'What's to be done with the poor animal?'

               'Give here, good man,' said the valet, patronisingly not paying much heed to the remarks of the servant; 'I am the "Signor Conte's" own body servant, and giving it to me is the same as giving it to himself.'

               'Maybe,' answered the poor man, 'but I'm too simple to understand how one man can be the same as another. My orders are to give it to the count alone, and to the count alone I must give it.'

               'Take it from him, and turn him out,' said the valet, with supreme disdain, and the lackey was not slow to take advantage of the permission. The poor man, however, would not yield his trust, and the scuffle that ensued brought the count himself out to learn the reason of so much noise.

               The letter was now soon delivered. The count started when he saw the handwriting, and was impelled to tear the letter open at once, so much did its appearance seem to surprise him.

               'Who gave you the letter?' he exclaimed, in an excited manner, as soon as he had rapidly devoured its contents.

               'I cannot tell, I never saw the person before,' replied the poor man.

               'Would you know him again?' inquired the count.

               'Oh, most undoubtedly!' answered the poor man; 'he said such strange things to me that I looked hard at him.'

               'Then come this way,' said the count; and he led him into a large hall, round which were hung many portraits in frames. 'Do you see one among these portraits that at all resembles him?' he said, when he had given him time to look round the walls.

               'Yes, that is he!' said the poor man, unhesitatingly, pointing to the portrait of the count's father, from whom he had inherited such great wealth, and for whom he had never given the alms of a single mass.

               'Then there is no doubt it was himself,' said the count. 'In this letter he tells me that you of your poverty have done for him what I with all my wealth have never done,' he added in a tone of compunction. 'For you have given alms for the repose of his soul, which I never have; therefore he bids me now take you and all your family into the palace to live with me, and to share all I have with you.'

               After that he made the man and all his family come to live in the palace, as his father directed, and he was abundantly provided for the rest of his life.


'I know one of that kind,' interposed one sitting by. 'Will you hear it? But mine is true, mine is a real fact, and happened no longer ago than last October;' and he told me the very names and address of the people concerned with the greatest particularity; this was in January 1873.


[1] 'La Lettera del Morto.'

[2] 'Bussola,' a box for alms, &c.

[3] 'Painone,' 'Paino'; a sneering way of naming a well-dressed person. 'Painone,' augmentative of the same.

[4] 'Sua Eccellenza.' The cant form of address of the Roman beggar.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Dead Man’s Letter, The
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Estes and Lauriat
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1877
Country of Origin: Italy
Classification: unclassified

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