The devil, having heard divers husbands railing over the humours of their wives, makes trial of matrimony by espousing Silvia Balastro, and, not being able to endure his wife for long, enters into the body of the Duke of Malphi.
THE frivolity and want of judgment which nowadays is to be found amongst most women (I speak of those who, without heed, give full license to their eyes and fancy in straining to compass their unbridled lust), offers me occasion to tell to this noble concourse a story which may not be familiar. And, although you may find it somewhat short, and ill put together, it may, nevertheless, serve as a wholesome lesson to you wives to be less irksome and exacting to your husbands than you have been heretofore. And if I seem to lay on the lash too heavily, blame not me, who am but the humble servant of all you others, but make your complaint to the Signora, who, as you have heard, has given me leave to set before you whatever story might commend itself to my taste.
I will first tell you, gracious ladies, that many years ago the devil, becoming weary of the unceasing and clamorous accusations made by husbands against their wives, determined to test the truth of these by making trial of marriage himself, and, that he might the better compass this design, he took the shape of a goodly young man of courtly manners, and well furnished with lands and gold, Pancrazio Stornello by name. As soon as the bruit of his intention got abroad in the city, divers matchmakers waited upon him with plentiful choice of comely women, well dowered, for his wife, and from amongst these he settled upon Silvia Balastro, a noble maiden. Never before had the city witnessed such magnificent nuptials and rejoicings. The kinsfolk of the bride came from far and near, and for the best man the bride groom chose one Gasparino Boncio, a townsman of repute. A few days after the marriage the devil addressed Sylvia, saying, ‘My dear wife, I need scarcely tell you that I love you better than I love myself, seeing that I have already given you many tokens of my affection; therefore, for the sake of this love of mine, I am about to beg of you a favour which will be easy for you to grant, and most acceptable to me. This favour is nought else than that you should demand of me all that you want now, and all that you will ever be likely to want, of raiment, jewellery, pearls, and other things of the same sort which ladies love; for I have determined, on account of the great love I have for you, to give you all you may demand, though it may cost a kingdom. I make but one condition, which is, that you shall never trouble me about such matters again; so be careful that you get all you can possibly require for the rest of our married life, and be careful likewise never to demand aught of me more, for you will ask in vain.’ Silvia begged for time to consider this proposition) and, having betaken herself to Signora Anastasia, her mother, a worldly-wise old lady, she laid bare the offer of her husband, and asked for ad vice thereanent. Anastasia, who knew well enough how to play a game of this sort, took pen and paper and wrote out a list of articles, such as would need two days to describe by word of mouth, and said to Silvia, ‘Take this paper, and ask your husband to give you everything that is here written down. If he agrees, you may be well content with him.’ Hereupon Silvia departed, and, having found her husband, she asked him to give her all that was written on the list, and he, when he had carefully read it over, said, ‘Are you quite sure, dearest Sylvia, that you have put down here all you want—that there is nothing missing for which at some future time you may have to ask me? for I warn you that, if this should be so, neither your prayers nor your sighs nor your tears will avail to get it for you.’
Silvia could think of nothing else to ask for, and agreed to the conditions of her husband, who at once commanded to be made vast store of rich vestments studded with big pearls, and rings and all sorts of jewels the most sumptuous that were ever seen. And over and above these he gave her coifs and girdles embroidered with pearls, and all manner of other dainty baubles which can be better imagined than described. When Silvia was arrayed in these, and conscious of being the best dressed woman in the city, she became somewhat saucy. There was nothing else she could ask her husband for, so well had he cared for her needs.
It chanced, soon after this, that the city was all agog concerning a great feast to which were bidden all the nobles of the place, and amongst these was naturally included Silvia, who was amongst the most beautiful and distinguished ladies in the city. And the more to honour this festival, the other ladies met and devised all sorts of new fashions of dress, altering them so much that anyone accoutred in those in vogue heretofore would hardly have been recognized. There was no mother’s daughter in the town—just as if it had happened today —who was not bent on mounting the newest fashion to do honour to the festival, and each one vied to outdo the other in pomp and magnificence.
When there came to Silvia’s ears the news that the fashion of dress was to be changed, she was at once beset with fear that the store of raiment she had lately received from her husband would be found of unfashionable shape and unfit to be worn at the feast, and, in consequence, fell into a melancholy humour, neither eating nor sleeping, and making the house resound with her sighs and broans. The devil, who fathomed the trouble in his wife’s heart, feigned to know nothing of it, and one day addressed her: ‘What is troubling you, Silvia, that you look so unhappy? Have you no heart for the coming festival?’ Silvia, seeing her opportunity, plucked up courage and said: ‘What is the festival to me? How can I go there in these old-fashioned clothes of mine? I am sure you will not force me thither to be mocked at by the others.’ Then said Pancrazio to her: ‘Did I not give you everything you would want for the rest of your days? How comes it that you now ask me for more after agreeing to the conditions I then made? ‘These words only made Silvia weep the more, and, bewailing her unhappy fate, cry out that she could not go to the feast be cause she had no clothes fit to wear. Then said the devil, ‘I gave you at first all that was necessary for the rest of your days, but I will once more gratify your wishes. You may ask of me for anything you want, and your request shall be granted; but never again. If, after this, you make a like petition, the issue will be something you will never forget.’
Silvia straightway put off her peevish humour, and wrote out another list of braveries as long as the last, which Signor Pancrazio procured for her without delay. In the course of time the ladies of the city once more set to work to make another change in the fashion of dress, and once more Silvia found her self clad in dresses of out-worn cut. No other lady could boast of jewels so costly, or of robes of such rich and sumptuous web; but this was no solace to her, and she went mourning all day long, without daring to make another appeal to her husband, who, marking her tristful face, and knowing enough what was vexing her, said, ‘Silvia, my love, why are you so sad?’ Then she took courage and said, ‘Is there not cause enough for me to be sad, seeing that I have no raiment in the new fashion, and that I cannot show my face amongst the other ladies of the city without their making a mock of me, and bringing reproach up on you as well as upon myself? and the respect and fidelity I have towards you do not merit such a return of shame and humiliation.’ At these words the devil was terribly wroth and said: ‘What cause have you for complaint? Have I not twice over given you all you have asked for? Your desires are insatiable, and beyond my power to satisfy. I will Once more give you everything you may demand, but I will straightway go away and you will never see my face again.’ The devil was as good as his word, and, after he had given Silvia a goodly store of new garments, all after the latest fashion, he left her without taking leave of her, and went to Malphi, where, for a diversion, he entered into the body of the duke and tormented him grievously.
Now it chanced that, soon after this, Gasparino Boncio, the gallant who had acted at Pancrazio’s nuptials as best man, was forced to fly from his city on account of some offence against good manners. Wherefore he betook himself to Malphi, where he managed to live by gambling and by a lot of cunning tricks of which he was master, and rumour would have it that he was a man of parts, though he was indeed nought but a sorry knave. One day, when at the cards with some gentlemen of the place, he went a step too far, and roused their wrath so hotly that, but for fear of the law, they would certainly have made an end of him. One of these, smarting under some special wrong, vowed that he would bring Master Gasparino into such a plight as he would never forget. And forthwith he betook himself to the duke, and, having made a profound obeisance, he said: ‘Your excellency, there is in this town a man named Gasparino, who makes boast that he can cast out evil spirits—whether of this world or of the nether one—which may have entered the bodies of men; therefore, methinks, you would do wisely to bid him try his skill to deliver you from your torment.’ On hearing these words the duke sent forth with for Gasparino, who, being summoned, went into the duke’s presence at once.
‘Signor Gasparino,’ said the duke, ‘they tell me you profess to be an exorcist of evil spirits. I, as no doubt you have heard, am sorely tormented by one of these, and I pledge my faith to you that, if you will work your spells upon him and drive him out, I will deal with you so that you may live for the rest of your days free from care.’ Gasparino was utterly confounded by this speech, and, as soon as the duke was silent, he began to stammer and to protest loudly that he knew nought of such matters, and had never boasted of any such power; but the gentleman, who was standing by, came forward and said: ‘Do you not remember, Signor Gasparino, that, on a certain day, you told me this and that?’ Gasparino persisted in denying any such speech, and, while they were wrangling together, the duke broke in and said: ‘Come, come, hold your peace, both of you! As for you, Master Gasparino, I give you three days to work up your charms, and, if you can deliver me from this misery, I promise you the most beautiful castle in my do- minions, and you may ask of me what ever you will. But, if you fail in this, before eight days have passed I will have you strangled between two of these columns.’
Gasparino, when he listened to the duke’s command, was utterly confounded and filled with grief and, having with drawn from the duke’s presence, began to ruminate day and night as to how he might accomplish the task laid upon him. On the day fixed for the incantation he went to the palace, and, having ordered to be spread on the floor a large carpet, began to conjure the evil spirit to come out, and to cease his torment. The devil, who was quite at his ease in the duke’s body, did not reply, but breathed so strong a blast of wind through the duke’s throat that he was like to choke him. When Gasparino renewed his conjurations the devil cried out: ‘My friend, you can enjoy your life; why can’t you leave me at peace here, where I am very comfortable? Your mummery is all in vain.’ And here the devil began to deride him. But Gasparino was not to be daunted by this, and for the third time he called upon the devil to come out, asking him so many questions that at last he got to know the evil spirit to be no other than his whilom friend, Pancrazio Stornello ‘And I know you, too,’ the devil went on; ‘you are Gasparino Boncio, my very dear friend. Don’t you remember those merry nights we spent together?’ ‘Alas! my friend,’ said Gasparino, ‘why have you come here to torment this poor man?’ ‘That is my secret,’ answered the devil; ‘why do you refuse to go away and leave me here, where I am more at my ease than ever I was before?’ But Gasparino went on with his questioning so long and so adroitly that he induced the devil at last to tell him the story of his wife’s insatiable greed, of the violent aversion he had conceived for her thereanent, and how he had fled from her and taken up his abode in the body of the duke, and that no consideration would induce him to return to her. Having learned so much, Gasparino said: ‘And now, my dear friend, I want you to do me a favour.’ ‘What may it be?’ the devil inquired. ‘Nothing more than to get you gone from the body of this poor man.’ ‘Friend Gasparino,’ quoth the devil, ‘I never let you down as a wise man, but this request of yours tells me you are a downright fool.’ ‘But I beg you, I implore you for the sake of the merry bouts we have enjoyed together, to do as I ask,’ said Gasparino. ‘The duke has heard that I have power to cast out spirits, and has imposed this task upon me. Unless I fulfil it I shall be hanged, and you will be chargeable with my death.’ ‘Pooh!’ said the devil, ‘our camaraderie lays no such duties upon me. You may go to the lowest depths of hell for all I care. Why didn’t you keep your tongue between your teeth, instead of going about boasting of powers you do not possess?’ And with this he roared most horribly, and threw the poor duke into a fit which nearly made an end of him.
But after a little the duke came to himself again, and Gasparino thus ad dressed him: ‘My lord, take courage; for I see a way of ridding you of this evil spirit. I must ask you to command all the players of music in the city to assemble at the palace to-morrow morning, and at a set moment to strike their instruments, while the bells all ring loudly, and the gunners let off their cannon as a sign of rejoicing for victory. The more noise they make the better for my purpose. The rest you may leave to me.’
The next morning Gasparino went to the palace, and duly began his incantations, and, as it had been settled, the trumpets and cymbals and tambours gave out their music, and the bells and artillery clanged and roared so loud and long that it seemed as if the uproar would never cease. At last the devil asked Gasparino, ‘Isn’t there a hideous medley of sound about the place? What is the meaning of it? Ah, I begin to hear it plain now!’ ‘Begin to hear it!’ said Gasparino. ‘Surely there has been clamour enough for the last half hour to have deafened even you.’ ‘I dare say,’ the devil replied; ‘but you must to know that the bodies of you mortals are gross and dull enough to shut out the sound from the hearing of one in my place; but, tell me, what is the reason of this noise?’ ‘I’ll tell you in a very few words,’ said Gasparino, ‘if in the meantime you let the duke have a little ease.’ ‘It shall be as you wish,’ said the devil. And then Gasparino brought out his story.
‘You must know, my dear friend and former comrade,’ he began, ‘that it has come to the duke’s ears how you were forced to run away from your wife on account of the woes you suffered through her greed for attire, and he has in consequence invited her to Malphi. The noise you hear is part of the rejoicing of the city over her arrival.’ ‘I see your hand in this, honest Signor Gasparino,’ said the devil. ‘Well, you have outdone me in cunning. Was there ever a loyal friend? Was I not right in belittling the claims of comradeship? However, you have won the game. The distaste and horror in which I hold my wife are so great that I will do your bidding and betake myself elsewhere; indeed, rather than set eyes on her again, I prefer to de part for the nethermost hell. Farewell, Gasparino, you will never see me or hear of me again.
Immediately after these words the poor duke began to throttle and choke, and his eyes rolled about in ghastly wise; but these frightful tokens only gave warning that the evil spirit had at last taken flight. Nothing remained to tell of his presence save an appalling smell of sulphur. Gradually the duke came to himself, and, when he had regained his former health, he sent for Gasparino, and, to prove his gratitude, gave him a stately castle, and a great sum of money, and a crowd of retainers to do him service. Though assailed by the envy of certain of the courtiers, Gasparino lived happily for many years; but Silvia, when she saw all the treasures her husband had given her turn to smoke and ashes, lost her wits, and died miserably.
The Trevisan told his story with great wit, and the men greeted it with hearty applause and laughter; but the ladies demurred somewhat thereat, so that the Signora, hearing them murmuring amongst themselves while the men kept on their merriment, commanded silence and directed the Trevisan to give his enigma, and he, without excusing himself to the ladies for the sharp pricks against their sex dealt out in his story, thus began:
In our midst a being proud
Lives, with every sense endowed.
Keen his wit, though brainless he,
Reasoning with deep subtlety.
Headless, handless tongueless too,
He kens our nature through and through.
Born but once and born for ever,
Death shall touch or mar him never.
The abstruse riddle of the Trevisan was no light task for the wit of the company, and it was in vain that each one essayed its unravelling. At last the Trevisan, seeing that his guesses were all wide of the mark, said: “It does not seem meet for me to perplex any longer the ingenuity of this honourable company. By your leave I will now unfold its meaning, unless you had rather wait for some cunning wit to fathom it.” With one voice they prayed him to un— veil its purport, and this he did in these terms: “My enigma signifies nothing else than the immortal soul of man, which, being spiritual, has neither head nor hands nor tongue, yet it makes its working known to all, and, whether it be judged in heaven or in hell, lives eternally.” This learned unfolding of the Trevisan’s obscure riddle pleased the company vastly.
Inasmuch as the night was now far spent, and the clamour of the cocks fore telling the dawn was heard, the Signora made sign to Vicenza, who was bespoken to tell the finishing story of the second night, to begin her task. But Vicenza, red in the face through choler at the Trevisan’s story, and not from bashful ness, cried out: “Signor Benedetto, I looked for a better turn from you than this; that you would aim at something higher than the character of a mere railer against women; but since you take so bitter a tone, meseems you must have been vexed by some lady who has asked more of you than you could give. Surely you lack justice if you judge us all alike; your eyes will tell you that some of us, albeit all of the same flesh and blood, are gentler and more worshipful than others. If you rate us in such wise, wonder not if some day you find your beauty marred by some damsel’s finger-nails. Then you will sing your songs in vain.”
To her the Trevisan replied: “I did not tell my story to hurt the feelings of anyone, nor for spite of my own; but to give counsel and warning to those ladies who may be going to marry, to be modest and reasonable in the calls they make on their husbands.” “I care nought what may have been your object,” said Vicenza, ‘nor do these ladies either; but I will not sit silent and let it be thought I allow these charges of yours against women to have any worth. I will tell you a story which you may find to be one for your own edification,” and having made obeisance she began.