One wintry evening in Ferrara Don Juan Belvidero was entertaining one of the princes of the House of Este. The sumptuousness of the banquet and the celebrated beauties who were present underscored the fabled wealth of the host. He could well afford to spend lavishly since his father who was old and decrepit could die any moment. His father had accumulated wealth wisely and let the only son of his late marriage live as grandly as his expectations warranted. The only trouble was that the old man was in no danger of dying. He lived in a wing of the palace alone as a recluse with only a dog for company. This indestructibility of his sire was well known and over the cups the guests could well tease Don Juan about his father.”Yes, when is that father of yours going to die?” asked one who was too lovely to offend any and the host somewhat drunk replied, ‘Oh! don’t talk about it,” cried Don Juan, the young and handsome giver of the banquet. “There is but one eternal father, and, as ill luck will have it, he is mine.”
At that moment the valet of his father rushed in horror writ large in his face. “My lord, your father is dying!” he said; and at those solemn words, uttered in hollow tones, a veil of crape seemed to be drawn over the
Don Juan rose to his feet with a gesture to his guests that might be rendered by, “Excuse me; this kind of thing does not happen every day.”Don Juan closed the door of the banqueting-hall; and as he went down
the long gallery, through the cold and darkness, he strove to assume an
expression in keeping with the part he had to play. He became thoughtful, like a man involved
in a lawsuit on his way to the Court.
His father struggling to keep himself alive as though he had a matter of vital import to leave for his son fell back in his death bed somewhat relaxed.”Poor Juanino,” the dying man went on, in a smothered voice, “I have always been so kind to you, that you could not surely desire my death?” “Oh, if it were only possible to keep you here by giving up a part of my
own life!” cried Don Juan.
The thought had scarcely crossed his mind when the old poodle barked.
Don Juan shivered; the response was so intelligent that he fancied the
dog must have seen through his hypocrisy.
“I was sure that I could count upon you, my son!” cried the dying man.
“I shall live. So be it; you shall be satisfied. I shall live, but
without depriving you of a single day of your life.”
“He is raving,” thought Don Juan. Aloud he added, “Yes, dearest father,
yes; you shall live, of course, as long as I live, for your image will
be for ever in my heart.”
“It is not that kind of life that I mean,” said the old noble, summoning
all his strength to sit up in bed; for a thrill of doubt ran through
him, one of those suspicions that come into being under a dying man’s
pillow. “Listen, my son,” he went on, in a voice grown weak with that
last effort, “I have no more wish to give up life than you to give up
wine and mistresses, horses and hounds, and hawks and gold—-”
“I can well believe it,” thought the son; and he knelt down by the bed
and kissed Bartolommeo’s cold hands. “But, father, my dear father,” he
added aloud, “we must submit to the will of God.”
“I am God!” muttered the dying man.
“Do not blaspheme!” cried the other, as he saw the menacing expression
on his father’s face. “Beware what you say; you have received extreme
unction, and I should be inconsolable if you were to die before my eyes
in mortal sin.”
“Will you listen to me?” cried Bartolommeo, and his mouth twitched.
Don Juan held his peace; an ugly silence prevailed. Yet above the
muffled sound of the beating of the snow against the windows rose the
sounds of the beautiful voice and the viol in unison, far off and faint
as the dawn. The dying man smiled.
“Thank you,” he said, “for bringing those singing voices and the music,
a banquet, young and lovely women with fair faces and dark tresses, all
the pleasure of life! Bid them wait for me; for I am about to begin life
“The delirium is at its height,” said Don Juan to himself.
“I have found out a way of coming to life again,” the speaker went on.
“There, just look in that table drawer, press the spring hidden by the
griffin, and it will fly open.”
“I have found it, father.”
“Well, then, now take out a little phial of rock crystal.”
“I have it.”
“I have spent twenty years in—-” but even as he spoke the old man felt
how very near the end had come, and summoned all his dying strength
to say, “As soon as the breath is out of me, rub me all over with that
liquid, and I shall come to life again.”
“There is very little of it,” his son remarked.
Though Bartolommeo could no longer speak, he could still hear and see.
When those words dropped from Don Juan, his head turned with appalling
quickness, his neck was twisted like the throat of some marble statue
which the sculptor had condemned to remain stretched out for ever, the
wide eyes had come to have a ghastly fixity.
He was dead, and in death he lost his last and sole illusion.
He had sought a shelter in his son’s heart, and it had proved to be a
sepulchre, a pit deeper than men dig for their dead. The hair on his
head had risen and stiffened with horror, his agonized glance still
spoke. He was a father rising in just anger from his tomb, to demand
vengeance at the throne of God.
“There! it is all over with the old man!” cried Don Juan.
He had been so interested in holding the mysterious phial to the lamp that he had
not seen his father’s eyes fade. The cowering poodle looked from his
master to the elixir, just as Don Juan himself glanced again and again
from his father to the flask. The lamplight flickered. There was a
deep silence; the viol was mute. Juan Belvidero thought that he saw his
father stir, and trembled. The changeless gaze of those accusing eyes
frightened him; he closed them hastily, as he would have closed a
loose shutter swayed by the wind of an autumn night. He stood there
motionless, lost in a world of thought. When he was sure his father was dead he knew what must be done. Don Juan the sceptic shut the flask again in the secret drawer in the
Gothic table–he meant to run no more risks of losing the mysterious
Don Juan Belvidero was looked upon as a dutiful son. He reared a
white marble monument on his father’s tomb, and employed the greatest
sculptors of the time upon it.
With such fabled wealth he was beyond reproach and knew all those principles that made man obey the dictates of the society and adherance to religion, morals were not for him. Like his father he married late. But of set purpose he was neither a good husband nor a good father. Don Juan had learned wisdom
from the mistakes made by his father Bartolommeo; he determined that
the least details of his life in old age should be subordinated to one
object–the success of the drama which was to be played out upon his
For the same reason the largest part of his wealth was buried in the
cellars of his palace at Ferrara, whither he seldom went. As for the
rest of his fortune, it was invested in a life annuity, with a view to
give his wife and children an interest in keeping him alive; but this
Machiavellian piece of foresight was scarcely necessary. His son, young
Felipe Belvidero, grew up as a Spaniard as religiously conscientious
as his father was irreligious, in virtue, perhaps, of the old rule, “A
miser has a spendthrift son.”
It was on a beautiful summer evening that Don Juan felt the near
approach of death. The sky of Spain was serene and cloudless like the expression
of his son a dutiful and obedient son who sat there watching him with
loving and respectful eyes. Towards eleven o’clock he desired to be left
alone with this dutiful being.
“Felipe,” said the father, in tones so soft and affectionate that the
young man trembled, and tears of gladness came to his eyes; never had
that stern father spoken his name in such a tone. “Listen, my son,” the
dying man went on. “I am a great sinner. All my life long, however, I
have thought of my death. I was once the friend of the great Pope
Julius II.; and that illustrious Pontiff, fearing lest the excessive
excitability of my senses should entangle me in mortal sin between the
moment of my death and the time of my anointing with the holy oil, gave
me a flask that contains a little of the holy water that once issued
from the rock in the wilderness. I have kept the secret of this
squandering of a treasure belonging to Holy Church, but I am permitted
to reveal the mystery in articulo mortis to my son. You will find the
flask in a drawer in that Gothic table that always stands by the head
of the bed…. The precious little crystal flask may be of use yet again
for you, dearest Felipe. Will you swear to me, by your salvation, to
carry out my instructions faithfully?”
Felipe looked at his father, and Don Juan was too deeply learned in the
lore of the human countenance not to die in peace with that look as his
warrant, as his own father had died in despair at meeting the expression
in his son’s eyes.
“As soon as I have closed my eyes,” Don Juan went on, “and that may be
in a few minutes, you must take my body before it grows cold and lay it
on a table in this room. Then put out the lamp; the light of the stars
should be sufficient. Take off my clothes, reciting Aves and Paters the
while, raising your soul to God in prayer, and carefully anoint my
lips and eyes with this holy water; begin with the face, and proceed
successively to my limbs and the rest of my body; my dear son, the power
of God is so great that you must be astonished at nothing.”
Don Juan felt death so near, that he added in a terrible voice, “Be
careful not to drop the flask.”
Then he breathed his last gently in the arms of his son, and his son’s
tears fell fast over his sardonic, haggard features.
It was almost midnight when Don Felipe Belvidero laid his father’s body
upon the table. He kissed the sinister brow and the gray hair; then he
put out the lamp.
By the soft moonlight that lit strange gleams across the country
without, Felipe could dimly see his father’s body, a vague white thing
among the shadows. The dutiful son moistened a linen cloth with the
liquid, and, absorbed in prayer, he anointed the revered face. A deep
silence reigned. Felipe heard faint, indescribable rustlings; it was the
breeze in the tree-tops, he thought. But when he had moistened the right
arm, he felt himself caught by the throat, a young strong hand held him
in a tight grip–it was his father’s hand! He shrieked aloud; the flask
dropped from his hand and broke in pieces. The liquid evaporated; the
whole household hurried into the room, holding torches aloft. That
shriek had startled them, and the room was full of people, and a horror-stricken crowd beheld the
fainting Felipe upheld by the strong arm of his father, who clutched
him by the throat. They saw another thing, an unearthly spectacle–Don
Juan’s face grown young and beautiful once again.
An old servitor cried, “A miracle! a miracle!” and all the Spaniards
echoed, “A miracle! a miracle!”
Dona Elvira, too pious to attribute this to magic, sent for the Abbot of
San-Lucar; and the Prior beholding the miracle with his own eyes, being
a clever man knew how to turn this to profit. He immediately gave out
that Don Juan would certainly be canonized; he appointed a day for the
celebration of the apotheosis in his convent, which thenceforward, he
said, should be called the convent of San Juan of Lucar. At these words
a sufficiently facetious grimace passed over the features of the late
On the day appointed the church was chokeful of people curious and deeply
reverential of the miracle. Above that blazing sea, rose the high altar like a splendid
dawn. All the glories of the golden lamps
and silver candlesticks, of banners and tassels, of the shrines of the
saints and votive offerings, paled before the gorgeous brightness of
the reliquary in which Don Juan lay. The blasphemer’s body sparkled with
gems, and flowers, and crystal, with diamonds and gold, and plumes white
as the wings of seraphim; they had set it up on the altar, where the
pictures of Christ had stood. All about him blazed a host of tall
candles; the air quivered in the radiant light. The worthy Abbot of
San-Lucar, in pontifical robes, with his mitre set with precious stones,
his rochet and golden crosier, sat enthroned in imperial state among his
clergy in the choir.
Te Deum laudamus!
The chant went up from the black masses of men and women kneeling in
the cathedral, like a sudden breaking out of light in darkness, and the
silence was shattered as by a peal of thunder. Even at the moment when
that music of love and thanksgiving soared up to the altar, Don Juan,
too well bred not to express his acknowledgments, too witty not
to understand how to take a jest, bridled up in his reliquary, and
responded with an appalling burst of laughter. Then the Devil having put
him in mind of the risk he was running of being taken for an ordinary
man, a saint, he interrupted the melody of love by a yell,
the thousand voices of hell joined in it.
Te Deum laudamus! cried the many voices.
“Go to the devil, brute beasts that you are! ” and a
torrent of blasphemies fell non-stop.
“Deus Sabaoth!… Sabaoth!” cried the believers.
“You are insulting the majesty of Hell,” shouted Don Juan, gnashing his
teeth. In another moment the living arm struggled out of the reliquary,
and was brandished over the assembly in mockery and despair.
“The saint is blessing us,” cried the old women, children, lovers, and
the credulous among the crowd.
Just as the Abbot, prostrate before the altar, was chanting “Sancte
Johannes, ora pro noblis!” he heard a voice exclaim sufficiently
distinctly: “O coglione!”
“What can be going on up there?” cried the Sub-prior, as he saw the
“The saint is playing the devil,” replied the Abbot.
Even as he spoke the living head tore itself away from the lifeless
body, and dropped upon the sallow cranium of the officiating priest.
“Remember Dona Elvira!” cried the thing, with its teeth set fast in the
The Abbot’s horror-stricken shriek disturbed the ceremony; all the
ecclesiastics hurried up and crowded about their chief.
“Idiot, tell us now if there is a God!” the voice cried, as the Abbot,
bitten through the brain, drew his last breath.
Ack:based on the story by Balzac
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