The Sport of Destiny
A Fragment Borrowed from Fact
Aloysius von G___ was the son of a commoner of some note in the *** Company’s service. He had great ability which was so well developed by an excellent education that, at an unusually early age, he entered the military service of his native Prince. Both were in the full glow of their youth and both were possessed of rash and enterprising natures, which soon endeared G____ to the Prince. Gifted with wit, charm and good humor, as well as information, G____ soon became an agreeable addition to every circle in which he moved, while the Prince had the good sense to appreciate his virtues. Added to these, he showed a great spirit of perseverance and all these qualities were heightened by a very pleasing figure, and an appearance of blooming health and power. He combined, in his demeanor, high spirits and natural dignity, relieved by a due share of modesty of manner. The Prince was charmed with both the inward and exterior qualities of his new associate, and the similarity of age, of inclination, and of character soon led to a great degree of intimacy between the two. G____ was advanced very rapidly, though to the Prince, even this rate of promotion seemed all too slow, so high was his opinion of his friend. When he was not yet twenty-two, G____ had reached heights which would have been envied by the most venerable statesmen at the close of their careers. But his active spirit was incapable of contentment or repose and while the Prince was engaged in the pursuit of pleasures, the young favorite would devote himself with unending assiduity to important affairs. He became, in time, so skillful and judicious that his talents were more and more constantly employed, so that, from the mere companion of his pleasures, he soon became counselor and Minister, and finally, the director of his Prince. In a short time, the only way to obtain the royal favor was through him. He had the disposal of all ranks and offices, as well as the distribution of all rewards and remunerations.
G____ , however, was far too young and inexperienced, and had risen by too rapid strides, to use his power with moderation. The respectful humility and attentions shown him by the first nobles of the land, who all surpassed him in birth, fortune and reputation, awoke the slumbering embers of his pride and tyranny, and he began to show a hardness of character which remained through all the vicissitudes of his fortunes. There was no service, however great, which his friends might not venture to solicit; but woe be to his enemies! He was less solicitous to enrich himself than a number of his creatures, but his choice of them was dictated by sheer whim rather than by justice. Yet, by exacting too much, by the haughtiness of his commands, and by his whole demeanor, he alienated from him even those who were most in his debt, while his rivals, and those who envied him were quickly converted into his deadliest enemies.
These men watching his every act with jealousy, were collecting materials for his future accusation and were slowly planning to undermine his greatness. Among them was a Piedmontese Count, named Joseph Martinenzo, belonging to the Prince’s suite. G____ himself had promoted him as a harmless, obedient creature, to his present post – that of attending the pleasures of his princely master, which he began to find too irksome now that he was engaged in more important occupations. Viewing this man merely as the work of his own hands, and thinking that he could at any time again reduce him to his original unimportance, he felt assured, through motives of fear and gratitude, of the fidelity of his creature. He thus fell into the same error as was committed by Richelieu in entrusting Louis the Thirteenth to the care of the young Le Grand. Lacking Richelieu’s ability of repairing so great a mistake, he had, further, to deal with a far bitterer enemy than the French Minister had to encounter. Instead of boasting of his good fortune, or allowing his patron to feel that he could dispense with his further patronage, Martinenzo was only the more cautious to maintain a show of dependence, and to bind himself constantly closer in the alliance with his benefactor. Meanwhile, he ignored no opportunity afforded him by his office to ingratiate himself with the Prince, until, from being useful, he became indispensable to him.
Discovering all the avenues to his confidence and favor, he gradually made himself master of the Prince’s mind. All those arts which pride and a natural elevation of character had taught the Minister to hold in contempt were brought into play by the Italian, who was utterly unscrupulous about the attainment of his object as well as about the means he employed. He was well aware that nothing is so conducive to unreserved confidence as participation in common vices and with this knowledge he proceeded to play upon the Prince, exciting passions hitherto dormant and directing them to the worst of purposes. By a train of the most seductive arts, he plunged him into excesses which admitted of no outside participation and no witnesses, and thus finally became the master of the most incriminating secrets. He then began to lay the foundation of his own fortunes upon the progressive degradation of the Prince’s character; the secrets which rendered him so formidable obtained him complete domination over the Prince’s feelings before G____ even suspected that he had a rival.
It may appear strange that so important a change should escape the attention of the Minister; but he had, unluckily, too high an opinion of his own worth to suspect that a man like Martinenzo would dare to become his opponent, while the latter was too cautious to commit the least error which might rouse his patron from his security. The same overweening confidence which had caused the downfall of so many of his predecessors from the summit of royal favor, was fast preparing the Minister’s ruin. The confidential terms upon which he saw Martinenzo with his master gave him no uneasiness; he was glad to resign a species of favor which he despised, and which left his ambition unsatisfied: it was only as it smoothed his path to power that he had ever valued the Prince’s friendship, and he foolishly threw down the ladder by which he had risen to his goal.
Martinenzo was not the man to play a subordinate part, At each step in the Prince’s favor, his hopes rose higher, and his ambition, growing in a friendly soil, began to strike deeper and stronger roots. The greater his reputation grew, the more his role of humility toward his benefactor irked him. On the other hand, the Minister’s deportment toward him, far from becoming more tactful as he rose in the Prince’s favor, aimed at humbling his pride by admonitions reminding him of his dependence. This tyranny finally grew so intolerable to Martinenzo that he boldly plotted the destruction of his rival at a single blow. Under an impenetrable veil of dissimulation, he brought his plan to completion, still not venturing to enter into open competition with his rival. Though the first glow of the Minister’s favor was at an end, the slightest circumstance could still have restored it, since the Prince showed the greatest respect for his mind and his advices and if he had once been dear to his master as a friend, he was now equally powerful as a Minister. Fully realizing the situation, the Italian knew that the blow which he was about to strike must succeed, or else prove fatal to himself.
The means by which he gained his object remained a secret with the few who aided him. It was reported that he had detected a secret correspondence of a treacherous nature, carried on by the Minister with a neighboring court; but whether his proposals had been listened to or rejected, remained a matter of doubt. The Prince felt that G____ was one of the most ungrateful and treacherous of men—that his delinquencies were fully proved and only awaited punishment. This was secretly arranged between the new favorite and his master; G____ was unconscious of the gathering storm, and continued wrapt in his fatal security until the final tragic moment, which precipitated him from the summit of princely honors into the depth of obloquy and contempt.
On the appointed day, G____ appeared as usual upon the parade. Not many years ago an ensign, he was now an officer of distinguished rank and even this was only meant as a screen for the exercise of his political power, which actually placed him above the foremost of the land. The parade was his stage here he indulged in all the pride of patronage; here he received the obsequious attentions of his creatures, thus rewarding himself for the exertions and labors of the day. His chief dependents, all men of rank, were seen gathering around him, eager to offer their obeisance, yet evidently anxious as to the kind of reception they might meet with. The Prince himself, as he passed by, beheld his chief Minister with a relenting eye; he felt how much more dangerous it well might be to dispense with the services of such a man than with the friendship of his rival. Yet this spot, where he was flattered and adored, almost like a god, was that which had been chosen for the scene of his tragic disgrace. The Prince rejoined the Italian, and the affair was suffered to proceed.
G____ mingled carelessly among his friends who, not suspecting any more than he, offered him their respects and awaited his commands. Suddenly, Martinenzo appeared, accompanied by some State officers. He was no longer the same meek, cringing, smiling courtier; the presumption and insolence of a lackey suddenly elevated into a master were visible in his haughty step and fiery eye. He marched straight up to the Prime Minister and confronted him, with his hat on, for some moments, without uttering a word; then in the Prince’s name, he demanded his sword. This was handed to him with an expression of terrific emotion; then, thrusting the naked point into the ground, he split it into shivers with his foot—the fragments lay at G ‘s feet. At this signal the two adjutants seized him; one strove to tear the order of the cross from his breast, the other pulled off the shoulder knots, the facings of his uniform, and even the plume of feathers from his hat.
During this cruel and humiliating proceeding, which took scarcely an instant, not a single voice was raised; a breathless silence reigned throughout the immense throng. The hundreds of nobles who were present, all stood motionless, with pale cheeks and beating hearts, an expression of pained surprise on every face. Throughout this trying ordeal, G____, though anguished, bore himself with fortitude and composure.
When this procedure was ended, he was conducted through many rows of spectators, to the very end of the parade ground, where a covered carriage was waiting for him. He was motioned to ascend, an escort of mounted hussars being ready to attend him. Meanwhile, the report of what had occurred was spread on all sides; windows were opened, the streets were filled with throngs of curious people pursuing the carriage—their cries of triumph, of scorn, or of indignation, echoing far and wide.
He escaped the frightful din at last, only to meet a more fearful trial. The carriage turned out of the high road into a narrow, unfrequented by-way, towards the place of judgment and then into a more public path. Exposed to the sultry summer heat, without hearing any accusation, without attendance or consolation, he passed seven hours of misery and affliction, before he arrived at his destination. Late in the evening the carriage stopped and G____, unconscious, his gigantic strength having yielded at last to twelve hours’ fast, was dragged from his seat.
When he regained consciousness, he found himself consigned to a subterranean dungeon, dimly lit by the rising moon whose rays entered through a few grated openings from a great height above. Near him he found a portion of coarse bread, with a bowl of water, and a heap of straw for his bed. He endured this plight without any interruption, until noon the following day, when he heard the sash of one of the iron windows in the center of the tower drawn aside; two hands were visible, lowering down a basket like that which had contained his food the day before. For the first time since his arrest he felt some inclination to inquire into the cause, and also into the nature of his future destiny. But he received no answer from above; the hands disappeared and the sash was closed.
Thus, without beholding the face, or hearing the voice of a fellow-creature; without having the least light thrown on his destiny, left in utter ignorance both as to the future and the past; never feeling the warmth of the sun nor the freshness of the air; he spent four hundred and ninety days of agony, only sustained by a small allowance of coarse bread. But this was not all, for he made a discovery one day which increased and intensified his wretchedness. He recognized the place; he had ordered it constructed only a short while ago, in a rage of vengeance against a worthy officer who had had the misfortune to displease him, and he had even suggested the manner in which it might be made more horrible and revolting. What added the last bitter sting to his punishment was that the same officer who had been destined to occupy it, had just succeeded the late commander of the fortress, and by a sort of retributive justice, was made the master of his enemy’s destiny. He was deprived of the last poor comfort, the right of commiserating with himself. He knew he did not deserve it; he felt himself an object of disgust and of the bitterest self-contempt; and, worst of all, dependent upon the magnanimity of a man to whom he had shown none.
His jailer was, fortunately for him, a man of noble feelings, who scorned to take a mean revenge. He felt sorry at the idea of fulfilling the part assigned to him; yet, as a faithful subject and an old soldier, he did not think himself justified in departing from the usual rules, and he feared to swerve from. his instructions. Still, he pitied him, and pointed him out to a benevolent assistant, the preacher of the prison, who, having been able to ascertain nothing against the prisoner beyond mere report, resolved, as far as possible, to mitigate his sufferings. This excellent man, whose name I willingly suppress, believed that he could best fulfill his pious charge by bestowing his spiritual support and consolations upon a being deprived of all other hopes of mercy.
As he could not obtain permission from the commandant himself to visit the prisoner, he proceeded to the capital to solicit the consent of the Prince. He fell at his feet, appealing for some mitigation of the prisoner’s sufferings. He insisted, in the name of his pious calling, on free admittance to the prisoner, whom he claimed as a penitent, and for whose soul he was responsible. His subject made him eloquent and he soon made some impression upon the Prince, who had at first refused his request. The result of his efforts won him, at last, full permission to visit the wretched prisoner and administer to his spiritual needs.
The first human face G____ saw, after a lapse of sixteen months, was that of his new benefactor and he was eloquent in his gratitude, for this was the only friend he had in the world; all his prosperity had never brought him one. The pastor was filled with horror and astonishment on entering the vault. His eyes sought a human form, but beheld, creeping towards him, a white and wild-looking living skeleton, whose couch resembled the den of a beast of prey rather than a human resting-place. All signs of life seemed absent from his countenance; on which despair and grief had traced deep furrows; his beard and nails had grown to a frightful length; his clothing was falling about him in tatters and, due to the lack of water and all means of cleanliness, the air was foul and contaminated. Almost terrified at the terrible state in which he found the prisoner, the pastor quickly hastened back to the Governor to solicit a second alleviation of his sufferings, since he feared that without it the first concession would be of little use. Since this, however, was in opposition to the strict letter of the Governor’s instructions, the pastor resolved on a second journey to the capital, in the hope of obtaining some further concessions from the Prince. He declared that he could not, without violating the sacred character of the sacrament, administer it to a wretch who had not even the semblance of a human being. He gained his object and from that day on, the prisoner’s lot was much ameliorated.
For many subsequent years, however, G____ continued to languish in captivity, though its trials were much less agonizing than those he had suffered previously; especially after the short reign of the new favorite was over and he was succeeded by others, who either were more humane or had no motive for revenge. Yet ten years passed, without any judicial investigation or any formal acquittal, before he was finally released. He was presented with his freedom as a sort of princely gift, but was requested at the same time, to banish himself from his native country.
Here, the oral traditions which I have been able to collect begin to fail and I find myself compelled to omit an intervening period of about twenty years. During this period, he took up his military career once more, this time in foreign service, and by combined skill and industry he achieved the same heights which he had formerly attained in his native land. Time, likewise, helped; the Prince’s days of pleasure and of passion were over; humanity gradually resumed its sway over him, and when his hair turned white, and he trembled at the brink of the grave, the friend of his youth appeared to him and constantly haunted his rest. He invited the banished man to revisit his native land, in order to repair, so far as possible, the injuries which had been done him. G____ of course, had long been anxious to return, but the meeting, though apparently warm and cordial, was extremely trying. The Prince gazed earnestly, as if trying to recall features so well known and yet so strange; he seemed to be numbering the deep furrows which he himself had traced there. But nowhere in that aged, grief-worn countenance could he recognize the features of his former companion and friend.
The welcome and the looks of confidence were quite evidently forced on both sides; mutual shame and dread had separated them irrevocably. A single look, which brought back to his soul the full sense of his guilt, hurt the Prince, while G____ felt that he could no longer have any regard for the author of his misfortune.
The Prince attempted to salve his conscience by reinstating him in all his old honors and authority, but he never succeeded in winning back the sincere good-will and fondness which had characterized their friendship. His failure so distressed him that he found his heart closed to all the enjoyments of life and ended his days in the shadow of unhappiness.
G____ , on his part, continued his troubled existence for nineteen years: neither time nor fate had quenched the fire of passion, nor wholly obscured the lively spirit of his character. In his seventieth year, he was still in pursuit of the shadow of a happiness which he had really possessed when he was only twenty. He died, finally, as the Governor of a fortress for the confinement of State prisoners. It was to be expected that he would behave with true humanity towards these unfortunates but, on the contrary, he treated them with the greatest harshness and ill-temper. If he remembered his own miseries as a prisoner, he gave not the slightest sign of it either by word or action. It was in one of his increasingly frequent fits of temper, in his eightieth year, that G____ collapsed and died without regaining consciousness, a victim, finally, to the passions that had wrecked his character and his career.
Translation by Marian Klopfer