ALOYSIUS VON G——— was the son of a citizen of distinction, in the service of —— — and the germs of his fertile genius had been early developed by a liberal education. While yet very young, but already well grounded in the principles of knowledge, he entered the military service of his sovereign, to whom he soon made himself known as a young man of great merit and still greater promise. G——— was now in the full glow of youth, so also was the prince. G——— was ardent and enterprising; the prince, of a similar disposition, loved such characters. Endued with brilliant wit and a rich fund of information, G——— possessed the art of ingratiating himself with all around him; he enlivened every circle in which he moved by his felicitous humor, and infused life and spirit into every subject that came before him. The prince had discernment enough to appreciate in another those virtues which he himself possessed in an eminent degree. Everything which G——— undertook, even to his very sports, had an air of grandeur; no difficulties could daunt him, no failures vanquish his perseverance. The value of these qualities was increased by an attractive person, the perfect image of blooming health and herculean strength, and heightened by the eloquent expression natural to an active mind; to these was added a certain native and unaffected dignity, chastened and subdued by a noble modesty. If the prince was charmed with the intellectual attractions of his young companion, his fascinating exterior irresistibly captivated his senses. Similarity of age, of tastes, and of character soon produced an intimacy between them, which possessed all the strength of friendship and all the warmth and fervor of the most passionate love. G——— rose with rapidity from one promotion to another; but whatever the extent of favors conferred they still seemed in the estimation of the prince to fall short of his deserts. His fortune advanced with gigantic strides, for the author of his greatness was his devoted admirer and his warmest friend. Not yet twenty-two years of age, he already saw himself placed on an eminence hitherto attained only by the most fortunate at the close of their career. But his active spirit was incapable of reposing long in the lap of indolent vanity, or of contenting itself with the glittering pomp of an elevated office, to perform the behests of which he was conscious of possessing both the requisite courage and the abilities. Whilst the prince was engaged in rounds of pleasure, his young favorite buried himself among archives and books, and devoted himself with laborious assiduity to affairs of state, in which he at length became so expert that every matter of importance passed through his hands. From the companion of his pleasures he soon became first councillor and minister, and finally the ruler of his sovereign. In a short time there was no road to the prince’s favor but through him. He disposed of all offices and dignities; all rewards were received from his hands.
G——— had attained this vast influence at too early an age, and had risen by too rapid strides to enjoy his power with moderation. The eminence on which he beheld himself made his ambition dizzy, and no sooner was the final object of his wishes attained than his modesty forsook him. The respectful deference shown him by the first nobles of the land, by all who, in birth, fortune, and reputation, so far surpassed him, and which was even paid to him, youth as he was, by the oldest senators, intoxicated his pride, while his unlimited power served to develop a certain harshness which had been latent in his character, and which, throughout all the vicissitudes of his fortune, remained. There was no service, however considerable or toilsome, which his friends might not safely ask at his hands; but his enemies might well tremble! for, in proportion as he was extravagant in rewards, so was he implacable in revenge. He made less use of his influence to enrich himself than to render happy a number of beings who should pay homage to him as the author of their prosperity; but caprice alone, and not justice, dictated the choice of his subjects. By a haughty, imperious demeanor he alienated the hearts even of those whom he had most benefited; while at the same time he converted his rivals and secret enviers into deadly enemies.
Amongst those who watched all his movements with jealousy and envy, and who were silently preparing instruments for his destruction, was Joseph Martinengo, a Piedmontese count belonging to the prince’s suite, whom G——— himself had formerly promoted, as an inoffensive creature, devoted to his interests, for the purpose of supplying his own place in attending upon the pleasures of the prince — an office which he began to find irksome, and which he willingly exchanged for more useful employment. Viewing this man merely as the work of his own hands, whom he might at any period consign to his former insignificance, he felt assured of the fidelity of his creature from motives of fear no less than of gratitude. He fell thus into the error committed by Richelieu, when he made over to Louis XII., as a sort of plaything, the young Le Grand. Without Richelieu’s sagacity, however, to repair his error, he had to deal with a far more wily enemy than fell to the lot of the French minister. Instead of boasting of his good fortune, or allowing his benefactor to feel that he could now dispense with his patronage, Martinengo was, on the contrary, the more cautious to maintain a show of dependence, and with studied humility affected to attach himself more and more closely to the author of his prosperity. Meanwhile, he did not omit to avail himself, to its fullest extent, of the opportunities afforded him by his office, of being continually about the prince’s person, to make himself daily more useful, and eventually indispensable to him. In a short time he had fathomed the prince’s sentiments thoroughly, had discovered all the avenues to his confidence, and imperceptibly stolen himself into his favor. All those arts which a noble pride, and a natural elevation of character, had taught the minister to disdain, were brought into play by the Italian, who scrupled not to avail himself of the most despicable means for attaining his object. Well aware that man never stands so much in need of a guide and assistant as in the paths of vice, and that nothing gives a stronger title to bold familiarity than a participation in secret indiscretions, he took measures for exciting passions in the prince which had hitherto lain dormant, and then obtruded himself upon him as a confidant and an accomplice. He plunged him especially into those excesses which least of all endure witnesses, and imperceptibly accustomed the prince to make him the depository of secrets to which no third person was admitted. Upon the degradation of the prince’s character he now began to found his infamous schemes of aggrandizement, and, as he had made secrecy a means of success, he had obtained entire possession of his master’s heart before G——— even allowed himself to suspect that he shared it with another.
It may appear singular that so important a change should escape the minister’s notice; but G——— was too well assured of his own worth ever to think of a man like Martinengo in the light of a competitor; while the latter was far too wily, and too much on his guard, to commit the least error which might tend to rouse his enemy from his fatal security. That which has caused thousands of his predecessors to stumble on the slippery path of royal favor was also the cause of G———’s fall, immoderate self-confidence. The secret intimacy between his creature, Martinengo, and his royal master gave him no uneasiness; he readily resigned a privilege which he despised and which had never been the object of his ambition. It was only because it smoothed his way to power that he had ever valued the prince’s friendship, and he inconsiderately threw down the ladder by which he had risen as soon as he had attained the wished-for eminence.
Martinengo was not the man to rest satisfied with so subordinate a part. At each step which he advanced in the prince’s favor his hopes rose higher, and his ambition began to grasp at a more substantial gratification. The deceitful humility which he had hitherto found it necessary to maintain towards his benefactor became daily more irksome to him, in proportion as the growth of his reputation awakened his pride. On the other hand, the minister’s deportment toward him by no means improved with his marked progress in the prince’s favor, but was often too visibly directed to rebuke his growing pride by reminding him of his humble origin. This forced and unnatural position having become quite insupportable, he at length formed the determination of putting an end to it by the destruction of his rival. Under an impenetrable veil of dissimulation he brought his plan to maturity. He dared not venture as yet to come into open conflict with his rival; for, although the first glow of the minister’s favor was at an end, it had commenced too early, and struck root too deeply in the bosom of the prince, to be torn from it abruptly. The slightest circumstance might restore it to all its former vigor; and therefore Martinengo well understood that the blow which he was about to strike must be a mortal one. Whatever ground G——— might have lost in the prince’s affections he had gained in his respect. The more the prince withdrew himself from the affairs of state, the less could he dispense with the services of a man, who with the most conscientious devotion and fidelity had consulted his master’s interests, even at the expense of the country — and G——— was now as indispensable to him as a minister as he had formerly been dear to him as a friend.
By what means the Italian accomplished his purpose has remained a secret between those on whom the blow fell and those who directed it. It was reported that he laid before the prince the original draughts of a secret and very suspicious correspondence which G——— is said to have carried on with a neighboring court; but opinions differ as to whether the letters were authentic or spurious. Whatever degree of truth there may have been in the accusation it is but too certain that it fearfully accomplished the end in view. In the eyes of the prince G—— appeared the most ungrateful and vilest of traitors, whose treasonable practices were so thoroughly proved as to warrant the severest measures without further investigation. The whole affair was arranged with the most profound secrecy between Martinengo and his master, so that G——— had not the most distant presentiment of the impending storm. He continued wrapped in this fatal security until the dreadful moment in which he was destined, from being the object of universal homage and envy, to become that of the deepest commiseration.
When the decisive day arrived, G——— appeared, according to custom, upon the parade. He had risen in a few years from the rank of ensign to that of colonel; and even this was only a modest name for that of prime minister, which he virtually filled, and which placed him above the foremost of the land. The parade was the place where his pride was greeted with universal homage, and where he enjoyed for one short hour the dignity for which he endured a whole day of toil and privation. Those of the highest rank approached him with reverential deference, and those who were not assured of his favor with fear and trembling. Even the prince, whenever he visited the parade, saw himself neglected by the side of his vizier, inasmuch as it was far more dangerous to incur the displeasure of the latter than profitable to gain the friendship of the former. This very place, where he was wont to be adored as a god, had been selected for the dreadful theatre of his humiliation.
With a careless step he entered the well-known circle of courtiers, who, as unsuspicious as himself of what was to follow, paid their usual homage, awaiting his commands. After a short interval appeared Martinengo, accompanied by two adjutants, no longer the supple, cringing, smiling courtier, but overbearing and insolent, like a lackey suddenly raised to the rank of a gentleman. With insolence and effrontery he strutted up to the prime minister, and, confronting him with his head covered, demanded his sword in the prince’s name. This was handed to him with a look of silent consternation; Martinengo, resting the naked point on the ground, snapped it in two with his foot, and threw the fragments at G——’s feet. At this signal the two adjutants seized him; one tore the Order of the Cross from his breast; the other pulled off his epaulettes, the facings of his uniform, and even the badge and plume of feathers from his hat. During the whole of the appalling operation, which was conducted with incredible speed, not a sound nor a respiration was heard from more than five hundred persons who were present; but all, with blanched faces and palpitating hearts, stood in deathlike silence around the victim, who in his strange disarray — a rare spectacle of the melancholy and the ridiculous — underwent a moment of agony which could only be equalled by feelings engendered on the scaffold. Thousands there are who in his situation would have been stretched senseless on the ground by the first shock; but his firm nerves and unflinching spirit sustained him through this bitter trial, and enabled him to drain the cup of bitterness to its dregs.
When this procedure was ended he was conducted through rows of thronging spectators to the extremity of the parade, where a covered carriage was in waiting. He was motioned to ascend, an escort of hussars being ready-mounted to attend to him. Meanwhile the report of this event had spread through the whole city; every window was flung open, every street lined with throngs of curious spectators, who pursued the carriage, shouting his name, amid cries of scorn and malicious exultation, or of commiseration more bitter to bear than either. At length he cleared the town, but here a no less fearful trial awaited him. The carriage turned out of the high road into a narrow, unfrequented path — a path which led to the gibbet, and alongside which, by command of the prince, he was borne at a slow pace. After he had suffered all the torture of anticipated execution the carriage turned off into the public road. Exposed to the sultry summer-heat, without refreshment or human consolation, he passed seven dreadful hours in journeying to the place of destination — a prison fortress. It was nightfall before he arrived; when, bereft of all consciousness, more dead than alive, his giant strength having at length yielded to twelve hours’ fast and consuming thirst, he was dragged from the carriage; and, on regaining his senses, found himself in a horrible subterraneous vault. The first object that presented itself to his gaze was a horrible dungeon-wall, feebly illuminated by a few rays of the moon, which forced their way through narrow crevices to a depth of nineteen fathoms. At his side he found a coarse loaf, a jug of water, and a bundle of straw for his couch. He endured this situation until noon the ensuing day, when an iron wicket in the centre of the tower was opened, and two hands were seen lowering a basket, containing food like that he had found the preceding night. For the first time since the terrible change in his fortunes did pain and suspense extort from him a question or two. Why was he brought hither? What offence had he committed? But he received no answer; the hands disappeared; and the sash was closed. Here, without beholding the face, or hearing the voice of a fellow-creature; without the least clue to his terrible destiny; fearful doubts and misgivings overhanging alike the past and the future; cheered by no rays of the sun, and soothed by no refreshing breeze; remote alike from human aid and human compassion; — here, in this frightful abode of misery, he numbered four hundred and ninety long and mournful days, which he counted by the wretched loaves that, day after day, with dreary monotony, were let down into his dungeon. But a discovery which he one day made early in his confinement filled up the measure of his affliction. He recognized the place. It was the same which he himself, in a fit of unworthy vengeance against a deserving officer, who had the misfortune to displease him, had ordered to be constructed only a few months before. With inventive cruelty he had even suggested the means by which the horrors of captivity might be aggravated; and it was but recently that he had made a journey hither in order personally to inspect the place and hasten its completion. What added the last bitter sting to his punishment was that the same officer for whom he had prepared the dungeon, an aged and meritorious colonel, had just succeeded the late commandant of the fortress, recently deceased, and, from having been the victim of his vengeance, had become the master of his fate. He was thus deprived of the last melancholy solace, the right of compassionating himself, and of accusing destiny, hardly as it might use him, of injustice. To the acuteness of his other suffering was now added a bitter self-contempt, contempt, and the pain which to a sensitive mind is the severest — dependence upon the generosity of a foe to whom he had shown none.
But that upright man was too noble-minded to take a mean revenge. It pained him deeply to enforce the severities which his instructions enjoined; but as an old soldier, accustomed to fulfil his orders to the letter with blind fidelity, he could do no more than pity, compassionate. The unhappy man found a more active assistant in the chaplain of the garrison, who, touched by the sufferings of the prisoner, which had just reached his ears, and then only through vague and confused reports, instantly took a firm resolution to do something to alleviate them. This excellent man, whose name I unwillingly suppress, believed he could in no way better fulfil his holy vocation than by bestowing his spiritual support and consolation upon a wretched being deprived of all other hopes of mercy.
As he could not obtain permission from the commandant himself to visit him he repaired in person to the capital, in order to urge his suit personally with the prince. He fell at his feet, and implored mercy for the unhappy man, who, shut out from the consolations of Christianity, a privilege from which even the greatest crime ought not to debar him, was pining in solitude, and perhaps on the brink of despair. With all the intrepidity and dignity which the conscious discharge of duty inspires, he entreated, nay demanded, free access to the prisoner, whom he claimed as a penitent for whose soul he was responsible to heaven. The good cause in which he spoke made him eloquent, and time had already somewhat softened the prince’s anger. He granted him permission to visit the prisoner, and administer to his spiritual wants.
After a lapse of sixteen months, the first human face which the unhappy G——— beheld was that of his new benefactor. The only friend he had in the world he owed to his misfortunes, all his prosperity had gained him none. The good pastor’s visit was like the appearance of an angel — it would be impossible to describe his feelings, but from that day forth his tears flowed more kindly, for he had found one human being who sympathized with and compassionated him.
The pastor was filled with horror on entering the frightful vault. His eyes sought a human form, but beheld, creeping towards him from a corner opposite, which resembled rather the lair of a wild beast than the abode of anything human, a monster, the sight of which made his blood run cold. A ghastly deathlike skeleton, all the hue of life perished from a face on which grief and despair had traced deep furrows — his beard and nails, from long neglect, grown to a frightful length-his clothes rotten and hanging about him in tatters; and the air he breathed, for want of ventilation and cleansing, foul, fetid, and infectious. In this state be found the favorite of fortune; — his iron frame had stood proof against it all! Seized with horror at the sight, the pastor hurried back to the governor, in order to solicit a second indulgence for the poor wretch, without which the first would prove of no avail.
As the governor again excused himself by pleading the imperative nature of his instructions, the pastor nobly resolved on a second journey to the capital, again to supplicate the prince’s mercy. There he protested solemnly that, without violating the sacred character of the sacrament, he could not administer it to the prisoner until some resemblance of the human form was restored to him. This prayer was also granted; and from that day forward the unfortunate man might be said to begin a new existence.
Several long years were spent by him in the fortress, but in a much more supportable condition, after the short summer of the new favorite’s reign had passed, and others succeeded in his place, who either possessed more humanity or no motive for revenge. At length, after ten years of captivity, the hour of his delivery arrived, but without any judicial investigation or formal acquittal. He was presented with his freedom as a boon of mercy, and was, at the same time, ordered to quit his native country forever.
Here the oral traditions which I have been able to collect respecting his history begin to fail; and I find myself compelled to pass in silence over a period of about twenty years. During the interval G——— entered anew upon his military career, in a foreign service, which eventually brought him to a pitch of greatness quite equal to that from which he had, in his native country, been so awfully precipitated. At length time, that friend of the unfortunate, who works a slow but inevitable retribution, took into his hands the winding up of this affair. The prince’s days of passion were over; humanity gradually resumed its sway over him as his hair whitened with age. At the brink of the grave he felt a yearning towards the friend of his early youth. In order to repay, as far as possible, the gray-headed old man, for the injuries which had been heaped upon the youth, the prince, with friendly expressions, invited the exile to revisit his native land, towards which for some time past G———’s heart had secretly yearned. The meeting was extremely trying, though apparently warm and cordial, as if they had only separated a few days before. The prince looked earnestly at his favorite, as if trying to recall features so well known to him, and yet so strange; he appeared as if numbering the deep furrows which he had himself so cruelly traced there. He looked searchingly in the old man’s face for the beloved features of the youth, but found not what he sought. The welcome and the look of mutual confidence were evidently forced on both sides; shame on one side and dread on the other had forever separated their hearts. A sight which brought back to the prince’s soul the full sense of his guilty precipitancy could not be gratifying to him, while G——— felt that he could no longer love the author of his misfortunes. Comforted, nevertheless, and in tranquillity, he looked back upon the past as the remembrance of a fearful dream.
In a short time G——— was reinstated in all his former dignities, and the prince smothered his feelings of secret repugnance by showering upon him the most splendid favors as some indemnification for the past. But could he also restore to him the heart which he had forever untuned for the enjoyment of life? Could he restore his years of hope? or make even a shadow of reparation to the stricken old man for what he had stolen from him in the days of his youth?
For nineteen years G——— continued to enjoy this clear, unruffled evening of his days. Neither misfortune nor age had been able to quench in him the fire of passion, nor wholly to obscure the genial humor of his character. In his seventieth year he was still in pursuit of the shadow of a happiness which he had actually possessed in his twentieth. He at length died governor of the fortress where state prisoners are confined. One would naturally have expected that towards these he would have exercised a humanity, the value of which he had been so thoroughly taught to appreciate in his own person; but he treated them with harshness and caprice; and a paroxysm of rage, in which he broke out against one of his prisoners, laid him in his coffin, in his eightieth year.
[Every month, The Reading Room showcases a short story, or excerpts of a book, from some of the greatest writers the world has ever seen. This month’s selection is The Sport of Destiny by Friedrich Schiller.]